This is Part 4 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.
A Way Forward for those Refusing to Sign
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 your 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 marriage 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.
A Way Forward for those Continuing to Sign
For churches and clergy who are planning to continue signing marriage certificates for couples, here are a few thoughts on what it 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 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 for this: protection (legal, financial, etc.) or discipleship. Or both. Granted, I am probably missing some other viable reasons. My only point is this: Church 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 officiate their wedding 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 prior to 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 help to 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 with conviction, courage and 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.
- 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.
In conclusion, 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.
* [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.]