Can Pastors Keep a Voice in the Marriage War?

by Mike Phay

The legal battle over so-called “same-sex marriage” has yet to come knocking on the doors of most small-town, rural churches like the one at which I serve: First Baptist Church, in the small Central Oregon city of Prineville. Prineville, historically a logging and lumber mill town, and longtime home to one of the largest independent tire dealers in the nation, now also boasts a burgeoning high-tech industry, housing data centers for two of the largest tech companies in the world. Our city, with a population of just under 10,000 (about double that if you include every resident of our rural county), is just a stone’s throw from Bend, which has become – over the past two decades – a literal (and liberal) mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, hipsters, and entrepreneurs. Despite all of the population and demographic changes that surround us, Prineville has retained its historically conservative identity, aligning for the most part with the eastern side of the state, and eschewing the liberal values of what locals would call the ‘too-quickly-encroaching’ liberal West.

Nevertheless, even fiercely-defended enclaves are often broken into, and the ubiquitous presence of the worldwide web has found a ready home in this small community. Conversations, viewpoints, and lifestyles that once would have been run out of town on a rail are more readily accepted in this small town. We are not incredibly diverse from a racial standpoint, but more and more “outsiders” have moved in over the past two decades, and the face of our small community has slowly been changing as well. In other words, the world’s not as far away from Prineville as it used to be. Some celebrate this as a good thing. Others are preparing for Armageddon.

I say all this because our brothers and sisters in more urban areas have already had many of the conversations that take a few extra months…or years…or even decades…to become poignant in our context. Even if we grapple with the same issues in real-time, the conversations are flavored quite differently. In either case, the dialogue may seem more urgent in an urban context, but they are no less real in our context.  Perhaps a voice from out-of-your-context may help bring some objectivity to your own thoughts, processes, and conversations.

The question that we are currently wrestling with as leaders in our small, local church in this rural community, centers around how we should be posturing ourselves in regards to the marriage debates.  Doctrinally, we align with a traditional view of humanity, and marriage biblically defined as the covenantal union of one man and one woman.  This theological position has already put a Portland bakery in the media spotlight for refusing, based on their religious convictions, to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  That’s a big deal in Portland.  Not yet a big deal in Prineville.  Statewide, gay marriage became legal on May 19, 2014, by the decision of a U.S. Federal district court judge.  Thirteen months later, with the US Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell decision, the game has changed completely.  Marriage has been redefined, from a legal standpoint, for our entire country.

So much can be said about this decision, about our society’s understanding of marriage, our legal and judicial system, and the role of the church.  But one thing that scholars and clergy have been debating for at least the past couple of years, is what posture the church should now take in its state-granted authority to sign, and therefore, validate state-issued marriage licenses.  This is the topic that I would like to pick up and discuss, weighing both sides of the conversation.

My hope is to adequately weigh both sides of the issue, and then offer some solutions for churches and church leaders who land on either side of the issue, as we seek to move forward together in today’s cultural, legal and political climate.

Participation Implies Complicity:

Clergy should refrain from signing state-issued marriage certificates

The first position that has been taken by some very astute and influential voices is that reflected in the “Marriage Pledge,” drafted by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, and publicized and supported by the journal First Things.  According to FT editor R. R. Reno, the Marriage Pledge “seeks to make crystal clear the difference between Christian marriage and government marriage,” and calls Christian clergy to “renounce the power invested in them by the state to sign government marriage certificates.”

I see three main reasons for the position that clergy should not continue to sign civil marriage certificates, as lined out below:

Irreconcilable Definitions of Marriage

The major concern of those calling for a cessation of clergy participation in “civil” or “government” marriage is the cultural loss of the traditional and biblical definition of marriage. As the cultural conversation moves forward, traditionalists are losing their voice, and the age-old definition of marriage as a covenantal bond between one man and one woman has been eroded. With the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, this redefinition of marriage has now become indelibly ensconced in the casuistic law of the United States. The call for clergy to cease signing civil marriage certificates would clearly separate these two increasingly divergent definitions of marriage.

Christian marriage has traditionally been defined as a conjugal covenant relationship between one man and one woman. By contrast, civil marriage has morphed over time as the laws of states and now the nation as a whole have changed. Originally, the state’s legal participation in the marriage institution was affirming of this definition and regulative in nature. Officially recognizing the relational covenant into which a man and a woman enter, the state has traditionally acknowledged this covenant and granted legal benefits, rights and privileges; created restrictions and controls; and policed divorce, property and custody rights.

Over time, the traditional and state definitions have gradually – and at times, tectonically – moved away from one another. At stake is a biblical definition of marriage that is covenantal at its core. As we have moved towards a contract-based society, the government definition has reflected this and become contractual in essence. For clergy to self-recuse from the “marriage business” is to recognize this major and fundamental difference in definitions. This viewpoint rightly recognizes the state marriage license to be a mere “civil union”. It would be helpful if the state would simply move towards “civil union” language, allowing the church to retain her traditional understanding of marriage, without losing the language. If this were the case, then it would clearly make sense for clergy to remove themselves from signing “civil union” contracts, just as clergy are not given a place to participate in business licenses, taxes, mortgages, or other legal contracts between individuals.

Perhaps the deepest ethical argument being made in regards to the redefinition of marriage is that for clergy to continue to sign state-issued marriage licenses, especially in close conjunction with a religious marriage ceremony, is for them to be complicit, by participation, in this state-sponsored re-definition of marriage. On this reasoning, it would seem to be unconscionable for any clergy to participate in the “marriage business” with the state, without resultantly adding to the erosion of our cultural witness and the common good.

Cultural Witness & Common Good

In an ever-changing society, cultural witness and common good have historically been difficult ideas for the church, in terms of her participation. Sometimes, Christians (and Christianity as a whole) have done well, positively influencing society. In fact, many would argue that the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage has been the basis of the strength of Western society. This understanding and practice of marriage, it is argued, continues to be foundational to the successful future of any society. Therefore, the modern redefinition of marriage undercuts the very foundations of our culture and the very future of our society. For clergy to continue participating as state agents in this new definition of “marriage” is to be complicit in destroying the very foundations on which our society is built and finds strength. As the traditional understanding of marriage erodes, so erodes the remaining semblances of a healthy, good and just society.

Furthermore, removing ourselves as clergy from the state-sponsored “marriage” process is in itself a bold move towards cultural witness. As noted above, this move can become a “crystal clear” statement to the culture.  Perhaps it would be a prophetic word of dissent, a boycott of sorts.

On the other hand, the church has not always borne clear cultural witness to the common good and grace of the institution of marriage. As marriage has been devalued and thus eroded in our culture through the proliferation of divorce, cohabitation, and abuse, the church has not only been impotent to effect the trends, but has not lived in a place of prophetic cultural witness by how we ourselves live. Divorce rates of professed Christians have generally kept pace with those of non-Christians. It would seem that believers, too, have adopted a contractual, not a covenantal, view of marriage. This is a reality for which the church bears responsibility.

Resultantly, a move to cut ties with the state in this way could be a way for the church to repent from their complicity with the undoing of marriage in our society. The church has lost its cultural voice by failing to teach theologically on marriage and to uphold it as such. Stepping away from the cultural redefinitions would be a clear rending, a bold move that would communicate to the culture that the church is no longer willing to bow to the culture’s purported re-definition of a God-created and God-defined reality.

Legal & Financial Protection

There is a strong concern that the slippery slope of our culture, which has now legally broadened marriage to include homosexual couples, will witness the state, at some point, forcing churches and clergy to sign marriage licenses for all couples seeking one, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. The repercussions of refusal on the part of church or clergy will be legal and wide-ranging, including lawsuits, loss of non-profit status, and perhaps even criminal charges. In short, churches will bear the legal brunt of their so-called “discrimination” in a myriad of ways.  In our state, Oregon, we have already witnessed the legal and media-saturated battles of a Portland bakery refusing to provide a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. The national reaction from the LGBT community to Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s comments on so-called “same-sex marriage” is another case in point.

Although the tide in our increasingly post-Christian culture is certainly turning against traditional Christian beliefs and institutional religion as a whole, there may be ways to avoid these negative ramifications. This would include having clearly articulated doctrinal statements about marriage and clear membership requirements for weddings. Another protection for the clergy-person and church would be a blanket refusal to sign any state-issued married certificates.

A Way Forward

So what would it look like for a clergy person to refuse to sign state-issued marriage certificates?

  • On a very practical level, you would need to preemptively inform couples who are seeking their services as a wedding officiant of your refusal to participate in the state’s licensing process.  You would need to direct couples to pursue their legal wedding license separately, and have it officiated with a justice of the peace or other government official.
  • You and your church would then be performing covenantally-based religious and family ceremonies.
  • It would be a best practice to also have a clear doctrinal articulation of your definition of marriage, as you may still have couples for whom you will not perform even a religious or family wedding ceremony. In a very real way, though perhaps the legal ‘bite’ could be less, a refusal to sign state-issued marriage certificates will not necessarily keep genuinely monogamous and devoted same-sex couples from desiring a church wedding.  In other words, don’t think that you can hide behind an abstention to deal with difficult doctrinal, moral and discipleship conversations!
  • To be faithful in their duties as shepherds, as an “abstaining” pastor, you must be willing to double-down on your devotion to disciple-making in your flock, if you are not already.  You must see weddings as an opportunity to engage in meaningful long-term relationships with couples, including pre-marital counseling, follow-up counseling, church membership, etc.  This should take place not only with each couple that is married, but also with a congregation as a whole.  Teaching on marriage, its biblical foundation and reality, along with its proper definition and role in society, should truly then be a cornerstone of a pastor’s teaching, just as it is a cornerstone of the Scriptures, from beginning to end (Genesis 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:21-33; Revelation 19:6-10).
  • A church (synod, denomination, or association) should consider creating covenant documents and taking church discipline in regards to marriage more seriously than most churches do.  This could be very similar to a church membership covenant, would be a clear reflection of marriage vows, and would be signed by the bride, the groom and the officiant.  It is quite possible that this type of covenant ceremony could be entered into, and document signed, prior to a couple seeking a “civil union” at the courthouse.  Proceeding in this way would help couples, families, and churches to recognize the primacy of the covenant over the contract.  It would also be a powerful teaching tool for individuals and congregations, but it would have to be seen and lived out in a relational context over a long period of time.  Your church would have to have (or build) a culture of accountability and covenant-keeping that would be reflected, not only in a marriage covenant, but in baptism, communion, child dedications and membership.

Retaining a Cultural Voice:

Clergy should continue signing state-issued marriage certificates.

The reasoning for this side of the question seems to run along very similar lines, but with completely different takes.  I have lined out the main arguments as well as potential practical steps to be taken by clergy and churches who opt to continue signing state-issued marriage certificates.

The Definition of Marriage

The major issue under debate as to whether or not clergy should continue signing state-issued marriage certificates has to with different definitions of marriage. Tragically, a healthy and just definition of marriage has been undercut for decades, complete with centuries of abuse, convenience marriages, adultery, the sexual revolution, the rising prevalence of cohabitation, and divorce-on-demand.  Civil marriage has been contractual (rather than covenantal) in practice for some time, and the church has not shared a legitimate definition of marriage with the state for decades.  If this is the case, then why have we not removed ourselves prior to this?

If we are to define Christian (and traditional) marriage as a monogamous heterosexual conjugal covenant relationship, why are we arguing definitions when the heterosexual piece is being challenged?  Why not refuse to step out of the game when the covenantal piece lost its bite? We clergy have been signing-off on contracts for decades – and have reaped the cultural fruit of this viewpoint.  Our consciences haven’t been troubled by this until now.

It is agreed, in this viewpoint, that traditional marriage (as defined above) is a key foundation of a strong and stable society, but if the church’s voice is removed from the (contractual) social reality of marriage, then we ourselves may inadvertently be undermining society in the end.  Even contractual marriage is better than no marriage at all. By stepping out of the conversation, we actually lose our voice and weaken our ability to uphold our viewpoint in the public sphere – even if on a small scale, with individuals, families and congregations. Increasingly, a secular and post-Christian society sees the church as irrelevant. By excusing ourselves from participating in the foundational institution of our society, we do damage to our own voice by upholding the society’s view of our irrelevance.

Cultural Witness & Common Good

It is a cultural good and a place of witness in our society, legally granted to clergy by the state, to be able to participate not only in religious wedding ceremonies, but also in the civil sanctioning of marriage. It is a waning privilege to say to a couple: “By the power vested in me by God and the State…” It is not a light thing for clergy to consider the refusal of this privilege and opportunity, and so cease to be a voice into the culture. We currently continue to have a voice in the cultural conversation. If we cease to participate, we risk ceasing to have a voice.

On a practical level, we may inadvertently encourage couples to minimize their marriage to a contractual reality, rather than a covenantal reality, which many already do (even though they go through a religious ceremony). Again, the irrelevance piece. I have a hunch that many couples would forego a “church” or “religious” wedding if told that the officiant was refusing to sign their state-issued marriage certificate. Alternatively, many couples may prefer to have a family member or a clergy member who will sign their certificate do their wedding. In other words, they’ll just go to the church down the street, or have their wedding in the park or at the beach. The unfortunate consequence of this is further loss of influence and relevance.

Alternatively, for those couples who are a part of our church, we may inadvertently encourage them by our abstention (which stems from conscientious objection) not to engage in the “civil union” element, and forego the state-issued marriage certificate all together. Why would (or should) they participate, if their trusted minister (by way of conscience) is doing so?  (Most likely, they will participate because of the legal and financial benefits that may come of it, but who knows?) The ethical implications here are clear: would we truly encourage our people to engage in a practice that we ourselves are refraining from for ethical reasons? Perhaps we would, and perhaps we should, but the consequences do need to be considered.

For the large majority, a clergyman refusing to sign a couple’s state-issued marriage certificate will simply create confusion in the individuals who are coming to us to be married, and who don’t have a stake in the larger public conversation. Instead of creating confusion, clergy have the duty and a clear chance to teach and disciple our people, especially those who are being married and their families, about what marriage is – its cultural good, its covenantal reality, etc.

In other words, we still have a cultural place to teach and speak: mainly in the lives of our people and the lives of couples. It is compelling to retain a voice while we still have opportunity to do so, for there will likely come a day when that privilege is no longer granted – either by the state, or by the individuals.

Courageous and Prophetic Witness

It is highly likely that Christian clergy will be persecuted for what are perceived by the culture and the state as discriminating beliefs. Nevertheless, I see the outcome of that persecution not as being forced to sign state-issued marriage certificates, but being removed from an ability to do so. In other words, likely government-induced outcomes will be having non-profit status revoked, losing tax benefits and licensing privileges, and potentially undergoing lawsuits or being charged major fines. At an extreme, clergy would have their property taken and many rights revoked, and perhaps even be imprisoned. Removing ourselves from this responsibility now may undercut the state’s future vengeance, and help us to practically fall under the radar, but is that truly the best use of our cultural voice? Furthermore, is it a truly courageous and counter-cultural move – a bold move of prophetic witness?

If our concerns are future legal and financial threats, then is anticipatory non-participation the best way to engage the culture, teach our people to live counter-culturally, to suffer well, and to endure persecution?  It seems wise to continue on, in the privilege that we continue to be given by the state, and to courageously face whatever will come down the road.  As Douglas Wilson has said, it doesn’t make sense to “depart the field before the battle is over.”

Finally, for a message to be heard in a country as large and as noisy as ours, with a constant cacophony of voices speaking in, a message must be both loud and clear.  To achieve this, in our cultural milieu, the church must come at it with a concerted effort, a wide-spread cessation.  We must have a united front. Currently, this is not happening, and until it does, a lack of participation will go unheard. The other possibility for it being loud (clear will be another matter) is for the voice of the church to take center stage.  This will not even be possible, if the battlefield is abandoned too early.  Yes, the Court has thrown down the gauntlet; but will we be there when the heat really comes, and by our courageous stance in the midst of true persecution, retain a bold and prophetic witness to our culture?

A Way Forward

For churches and clergy who are planning to continue signing marriage certificates for couples, here are a few thoughts on what that could look like in a way that pursues a strong and continued cultural voice, as well as a pro-active and rigorous discipleship in our congregations:

  • There must be a clear doctrinal definition of a church’s understand of marriage, which will be most helpful if it is an official part of the church’s governing documents. Currently, to live in line with your doctrinal statement while continuing to sign civil marriage certificates, does not at this time require us to sign certificates for “unions” that we don’t, by definition, believe to be marriages. In other words, just because you are still willing to sign state-issued marriage certificates for unions that you condone, does not mean that you will (or should) participate in all the requests that you get (for various reasons), including requests from same-sex couples.
  • Some churches may also decide to have a clear, written policy on who they will marry. Some choose to only marry members, with good reason. There are two reasons that I can see:  protection (legal, financial, etc.) or discipleship. Or both. Granted, I am probably missing some other viable reasons. My only point is this: Membership should be a powerful discipleship tool, and it is right to not simply be reduced to a figurehead who blesses the couple with holy magic, grabs a piece of cake at the reception, then slips out the door. If you are not in a discipling relationship with a couple – or given permission and opportunity to be so – then you probably shouldn’t marry them anyway. If they just need somebody to preside, you may not be the right person for the job.
  • Naturally, a membership requirement will have discipleship complications of its own, including church discipline. Therefore, a church (synod, denomination, or association) that hasn’t already done so should consider creating covenant documents and taking church discipline (specifically in regards to marriage vows) seriously.
  • Churches should also consider creating a Marriage Covenant that would work as a solemn, formal, and witnessed document, as well as a discipleship tool. This could be very similar to a church membership covenant, would be a clear reflection of marriage vows, and would be signed by the bride, the groom and the officiant, along with their state-issued license. Proceeding in this way would help couples, families, and churches to recognize the primacy of the covenant over the contract. Calling attention to the difference would also remove any hint of “complicity” in the state’s redefinition of marriage. Further, this covenant would also be a powerful teaching and discipleship tool for individuals and congregations. In order for this to happen, it would need to be communicated, upheld and lived out in a relational context over a long period of time. Your church would have to have (or build) a culture of accountability and covenant-keeping that would be reflected, not only in a marriage covenant, but in baptism, communion, child dedications and membership.
  • Realize that there may come a time when refusing to perform a wedding, and therefore refusing to sign a particular state-issued marriage certificate, does become an act of civil disobedience. This is not presently the case, but clergy will need to count the cost, be prepared, and prepare your people for when that day does come. Prayerfully and thoughtfully have a plan for how you and your church will respond in courage and with compassion.
  • Finally, a church should implement a formal discipleship-oriented process that outlines requirements for couples to be married in that church. This might include (these are just suggestions):
    • Clearly articulated limits on couples that you will or will not marry.  This could include same-sex couples, co-habitating couples, unequally yoked couples, non-members etc.
    • Teaching on and agreement with your church’s doctrinal statement in regards to humanity, specifically the marriage clause mentioned above.
    • Rigorous pre-marital counseling, including:
      • Time – at least a 6 month commitment.
      • Biblical and doctrinal teaching on the foundational theological and mysterious truth of marriage and the realities to which it points. This can be done in groups, as couples, or individually.
      • Relational and practical work: discussions about personality, family-of-origin, finances, and sex.
    • Follow-up:
      • A commitment to check-ups at 3-months, 6-months and 1-year after the wedding.
      • A commitment to a small group for at least a year after the wedding.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I feel like there are strong and valid arguments on either side of this issue, and the way forward is not completely clear. I would affirm clergy members and churches who came down on either side of the issue, as long as they are continuously and prayerfully pursuing a holistic and Gospel-centered discipleship for their whole church. This kind of discipleship is Christ-centered, Word-based, relationally-driven, congregation-wide, and includes clear doctrinal distinctives, church membership, and the practice of church discipline.  Although the road ahead is not always clear, it is clear to me that this way of disciple-making is the courageous road, regardless of what the culture says.