So how are we to respond to this? A marriage pledge is being promoted at First Things, in which the undersigned ministers promise to cease cooperating with the civil magistrate on all things marriage. They will cease being agents for the state in weddings, and this in protest of the radical redefinition of marriage that is now underway in our culture.
In part, the pledge says this:
“Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.
Please join us in this pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage by adding your name.”
Before getting to the difficulties, let me start with the commendations. This is an important time in our cultural history, and how ministers respond to it is critical. It is good to see men drawing a radical line, and doing so in defense of biblical marriage. There is a clear awareness that we do need to have a showdown, and that is all to the good.
But . . . and you knew this was coming . . . we need to think this through more carefully. We need to have a strategic plan that is based on solid theological foundations, and it should be a plan that is designed to be implemented by churches, and not just by individual churchmen. Here are my reasons for thinking that this plan at First Things does not meet those criteria.
First, we are departing the field before the battle is over. I acknowledge that it looks grim for us, but we need to be a little bit more John Paul Jonesy about this, and learn how to say, “I have not yet begun to fight.” Two contradictory circuit court decisions are even now heading to the Supreme Court, and it is conceivable that the case will go the right direction. The Supreme Court may not want to make the same mistake they made in Roe v. Wade, which was the mistake of imposing on the states what the majority of the states manifestly did not want. That had the result of guaranteeing that abortion remained a hot political issue, forty years after our lords and masters supposedly “settled it for us.” It is the same kind of thing here, and it is possible that the Supremes may decide not to cram this mirage monstrosity down our throats. So if it goes in a positive direction, this will mean that many of Calvin’s lesser magistrates may be left with a good deal of room to maneuver — and it would therefore be highly regrettable if many ministers in those jurisdictions had checked out on them beforehand by signing this pledge. I am against surrendering in any case, but I am really against surrendering before the battle is really joined.
Second, there are a host of ethical, legal and covenantal issues and ramifications that come with this and it is apparent that the promoters of this pledge have not worked through them. The pledge says, “We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings.” But wait a minute. If it is a matter of conscience for a minister to baulk at the Spouse A and Spouse B stuff, why is it not equally a matter of conscience for the Christian couple? Why do they have to go do the dirty paperwork while their minister gets to opt out? The problem with this is that the shepherd has left the pasture, and is “asking” the sheep to go down to the county courthouse to compromise with the wolves directly. That is the ethical issue. Every argument that requires Christian ministers to opt out has equal force for every Christian couple. Every argument that allows a Christian couple to get married in the eyes of a perverse state is an argument that allows their minister to help them. It cannot be a conscience issue for one and not for the other.
Then there are the legal and covenantal complications. These have not been thought through either. We have no business officiating over church weddings that are covenantally and legally toothless while at the same time ceding important legal ground, the ground that involves property and custody issues, to the secularists. This is an enormously important issue, one with many legal ramifications for families, and political ramifications for our people and nation, and we have to do our homework on it. Not only that, we do not have much time for doing our homework. This is why the CREC has a committee working on these very issues, with the hope of having recommendations presented to all our presbyteries this next fall. Whatever we come up with, it needs to be something that places shepherds in between the wolves and the sheep, not something that leaves the sheep to fend for themselves. If anybody gets into a battle royal over this, it ought to be Pastor Smith, and not Bill and Suzy.
On top of all this, in addition, there are internal pastoral complications. What will these signatories do when couples in their churches move in together without a union recognized by the state? What about a couple that has a civil marriage but no church marriage? Or perhaps a church marriage and no civil marriage? Or a couple who have caught the next wave of the Spirit and show up at worship without either? Do the signatories to this pledge have a method, already recognized by the disciplinary authority of their respective churches, for defining fornication, adultery, etc. in this new order? When a church wedding is performed, and the couple then decline the request to go have a civil marriage performed also, do the churches of these signatories have covenants in place that will be more biblical and more obligatory than our current no-fault divorce culture?
I have officiated at two weddings where a license from the state was not obtained beforehand. I did not object because in both cases a covenant recognized by the church was signed by the involved parties, and then that covenant was taken in both cases and presented to the state in such a way that they could recognize it after the fact. I believe that this kind of process has much to commend it, and we well may need to start doing this in all cases. But we need to have done our homework. If we have such mechanisms in place — and I suspect that First Things does not — then let us proceed. But Christians who tie the knot need to have more secure knots than the secularists do. If this pledge catches on, I can easily envision Christians being less bound, less obligated, less constrained, and less secure than Andrew Sullivan is in his mirage.
In short, church weddings detached from the civil sphere are worthless unless the church is being given the contracted legal authority to adjudicate the divorce — property, custody, the works. Anything less than that is a sham and a farce.
Worse than that, it is a camouflaged rout, a “retreat to commitment,” a refugee column streaming toward the core values of our faith community. We thought those core values would somehow be a granite fortress, but they are actually stamped fiberglass, like at Disneyland.
For all these reasons, and for others I will no doubt think of or read about later, I would urge ministers not to sign this pledge, and would also urge any others who may have signed to withdraw their names. We do need to fight, and we need to pick our battlefield. But we should really want to defend an actual fortress, not a fiberglass castle.