This is Part 1 of a 4-part discussion about how pastors can move forward in a society that has legally redefined marriage. The particular issue at hand is the signing of state-issued marriage certificates.* The full article can be found here.
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.
* [Note: A non-affirming position (basically, that homosexuality is Scripturally forbidden, and therefore committed, monogamous homosexual “marriages” are not condoned by the Bible) is assumed throughout this series. Perhaps I will clarify my views on that at some point. I would recommend Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue for anyone interested in my basic framework on that issue.]