Retaining a Cultural Voice

This is Part 3 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.

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.  In a separate article, I will address 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 do 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, friend 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?

[Read Intro]

[Read Part 2]

[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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