Participation Implies Complicity

This is Part 2 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.

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.” [citation]

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-select out of 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.

[Read Introduction]

[Read Part 3]

[Read Part 4]

* [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.]

Published by Mike Phay

Husband. Father. Pastor. Teacher.

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