In Which First Things Does Some Fourth Things

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.

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James H. Kuzirian, Rev. Dcn.JohnMVictor BenalcazarJane DunsworthTim Recent comment authors

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timothy
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timothy

Thank you for manning the ramparts.

Barnabas
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Barnabas

“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.” If church marriage is worthless apart from state questions of custody and property then it is worthless NOW as the state has full say on those matters, not the church. (Not that the Church has spoken out with much criticism as the State abused those powers over the last 50 years.) They did not make the same mistake as with… Read more »

Heather Torosyan
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Heather Torosyan

Many countries have the civil and religious ceremonies separate. I was civilly married by a magistrate in Istanbul, Turkey and a couple of days later, married by the church. In the Armenian community you are not married until the church says so. Just saying that many other Christians in other countries are already dealing with this. It might not go amiss to see how they have dealt with it.

Aaron
Guest

Very pertinent blog for me. . . I’d be very interested in you fleshing out what this means: “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’m not following you there, but I would really like to :) I think most of the couples I work with would be open to a church-only wedding, but with the caveat that all of the public/tax/legal issues were still valid as well.

duellsquimby
Member

Wow, that was inspiring. Bring it on that God may be glorified.

wtrsims
Member

How would a binding church covenant function? An agreement requiring binding arbitration by a/the church having jurisdiction(?) over that marriage before or during a divorce?

Johnny Simmons
Member

I know this is easy to say, being a drummer and not a Presbyter, but why not start with a pledge of “I’m not going to marry two dudes, no matter what” and continue to do as we have done?

Jack Phelps
Guest
Jack Phelps

Doug I rarely read blogs and almost never comment on them. But this one is very good and I am in complete agreement with your arguments. I was appalled to see some of our guys on the First Things list of men who had already signed this pledge. We cannot get around the fact that God has given all three of the fundamental government agencies (family, church and state) an important role in marriage. We need to remain in the arena if we intend to have a role in the corrective process. Withdrawal accomplishes nothing. It certainly does not make… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Pastor Doug — please explain how it is you sympathize with the characters in the movie Sweet Land — wherein no church or magistrate recognized or validated the marriage.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

The first thing our pastors need to recognize = neither church nor state have any ability or authority to create a marriage. Recognize — yes. Create — no. Yours is a holdover Roman Catholic sacramental conception, not a covenantal take. It is tied to membership & baptism requirement. Do you baptize to make a believer? — or to recognize what has already been made. But do you recognize the membership in His church of recognized attending believers? — you do not — not fully, because you create the additional extra & nonbiblical artificial requirement of your membership oath. Marriage is… Read more »

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

What’s the difference between common law & with-license marriage? = none.

Well then, what do you need for a common law marriage?

For the magistrate, he looks to the same laws as “ceremonial” marriages:
* legal capacity (age, relation — had previously included gender)
** intent
*** behavior

We ceremonializers (clergy) should have very similar criteria for recognition.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

First Things states that “The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage

Like it ever did!!

It don’t make no never mind (as far as getting a license) what the state says a marriage is, as long as they don’t yet exclude & prohibit Christian marriages.

Joshua Gibbs
Guest
Joshua Gibbs

Doug, I remember a Sunday evening men’s meeting years ago when you suggested that, were the state of Idaho to ever legalize gay marriage, you would go down to the courthouse the next day and get a divorce. I wouldn’t blame you if you’d changed your mind, but if you’ve changed your mind, what prompted it?

Johnny Simmons
Member

Weird, this is the third time I’ve seen Sweet Land mentioned in a day and a half. Which is nice.

You believes God?

John R.
Guest
John R.

Johnny–my guess is that all three times you’ve seen it mentioned, it’s been mentioned by Eric. Oy vey with the Sweet Land again.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Well, it’s good to know you blokes be reading so closely.
I’ll cease now.
Til next time.

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

What Barnabas said about what Doug said about the worthlessness of church marriage detached from the civil sphere. Heather Torosyan makes a good point too. Yes, let pastors cease to perform as one handed agents of the state and let actual agents of state perform the functions of agent of the state. All that apart from the issue at hand.

mikebull1
Member

Good thoughts.
The marriage between Church and State should not end in divorce.

Scott Rose
Guest
Scott Rose

Anti-gay bigotry is just as wrong as race-based bigotry.

Churches long have been at the forefront of demonizing gay human beings, using them as political scapegoats, et cetera but it is time to leave those medieval, hateful anti-gay attitudes where they belong, in a garbage dump of ideas.

It has to be stressed that the heterosupremacist delusion is every bit as bad as the master race delusion.

Eric Stampher
Guest
Eric Stampher

Scott — would you also agree with this?:

Anti-incest bigotry is just as wrong as anti-gay-based bigotry.

Churches long have been at the forefront of demonizing incestuous human beings, using them as political scapegoats, et cetera but it is time to leave those medieval, hateful anti-incestuous attitudes where they belong, in a garbage dump of ideas.

It has to be stressed that the nonincestuous-supremacist delusion is every bit as bad as the master race delusion.

timothy
Guest
timothy

scott Rose,

Funny that you pose a moral case; I thought you blokes where all about the will to power–you know, ‘Grubering’ and all that.

Have you developed a moral philosophy or do you base your premises and conclusion on an existing one?

If so, please state it.

David R
Guest
David R

Ignore Scott Rose. He is a troll. Do not feed him. If you want to see the bile he spews, then just look at Ryan Anderson’s twitter feed (https://twitter.com/RyanT_Anderson)

Brandon Adams
Guest

Reformed Libertarian Posts on Marriage

Why on earth were ministers of the church “agents of the state” in the first place?

timothy
Guest
timothy

Hi David R.

Perhaps scott Rose can be led to repentance and salvation.

josh
Guest
josh

This is a discussion that I have been interested in hearing from wise minds. The direction First Things is heading seems to be right, but slower and with consideration to many of the items you brought up.

Richard Roland
Guest
Richard Roland

Every argument that requires Christian ministers to opt out has equal force for every Christian couple.

The ministers are not arguing that acting as the state’s agent in creating civil unions is unethical, but that it would be prudent now for Christian ministers to refrain from it because it gives the appearance of agreeing that those civil unions are marriage. Thus your argument for the inconsistency of doing that and advising the marrying couple to also seek a civil partnership fails.

melody
Member
melody

I am reminded of a particular scripture passage I read today regarding the doing of ‘good works’. It is from the book of James and says this,”… was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” Deceiving the bad guys is the only example given of justification by works in the book of James. Curious, huh?

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

However Hebrews 11:31 makes it clear Rahab’s work was a product of her faith. But the whole episode, yes, interesting.

John Weis
Guest

Mr. Wilson, from the article mentioned in your tweet here https://twitter.com/douglaswils/status/535827211572764673 This is an astonishing proposal that would signal an unprecedented retreat of theologically conservative churches from engagement in American public life. It seems that Damon Linker understands well the religious implications of the language used for tearing garments. If it is the priests tearing their robes, then aren’t we signifying the end of our priesthood on the behalf of the world (c.f. Lev 21:10, Matt 26:65)? Reno is calling for us to leave Western culture behind, but I think it will make the tear much worse (c.f. 2 Cor… Read more »

Very Rev Dr Archie Pell
Guest
Very Rev Dr Archie Pell

Two responses: #1 – Withdrawing from being (to use the Canadian legal term) “magistrates for the purpose of marriage” before all the “battles” are over is not necessarily good tactics, since in both Canada and the USA clergy have long consented to being agents of the government when it comes to conducting and registering marriages. Did any cleric opposed to divorce stop conducting marriages for the government when divorce being very easy to obtain? #2 – But when the time does come, the Pledge advocates something that is common in many countries, including “Christian” countries in Europe. Couples go to… Read more »

David Trounce
Guest
David Trounce

Good, thoughtful post. I would only add a couple of things. First, I think there is a difference between the current relationship of the minister with the state and the couple who get married. One is essentially paying taxes, the other is a tax man. Ministers are currently providing a service to the state but the couple are not. So, I think the minister could opt out of providing that service while still walking down to the court house to shepherd the couple through the paperwork. I also think that couples should be encouraged to take their biblical marriages down… Read more »

Judy
Guest
Judy

It would be better to take marriage away from the state. Marriage under a church license would be a legal contract which the courts would enforce.

Ira K. Dawson
Guest
Ira K. Dawson

I totally support Marriage between One Man and one woman as taught in the Scriptures of our
Holly Bible which the true wore of God.
Ira K. Dawson

Jane
Member

Judy, I think the point is that until it actually is the case that the state is willing to enforce church marriages as binding contracts, formalizing a spiritually binding church wedding with a civilly binding license is the way to go.

Kenneth Wilkening
Guest

As far as divorce, custody and property are concerned, follow the Biblical advice of rendering unto Caeser the things that are Ceaser’s and to god the things that come from him. If the priest/pastor of a flock wants to bless a marriage it should be a matter between him and the persons wanting to get married. If they want to marry within the church and not at the home or other outside facility then it should be up to the vestry of that church to decide whether it should be allowed. If the couple wanted to get some civil protections… Read more »

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

The civilly binding license is spiritually binding, church wedding or no.

Tim
Guest
Tim

Pastor Wilson, I’m grateful for this entry. My congregation sorted through this issue at the denominational level, which trickled down to our local church leadership. It was not without significant study at the “top” but our congregation made a decision about it after no more than a couple of hours of discussion. I made arguments (in that meeting) that cutting off any role to the Courthouse paperwork (which we did) has its own set of problems. Admittedly, folks looked at me with turned heads and a collective “huh?” look on their faces. I guess we gotta do the best we… Read more »

Jane
Member

The civilly binding license is spiritually binding, church wedding or no.

Yes, but that’s a different point.

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

I guess it’s the need for a church wedding that I ‘m not seeing. Since the civil procedure is already both civilly and (the church knows) spiritually binding what of substance does a church wedding with all the (expensive) frills add? Pretty, yes. Celebrating what ought to be celebrated, yes, , as long as we remember what the “what” actually is. Distracting from what matters and sometimes seemingly an end in itself – frankly yes, a church wedding can be that. It’s not that I’m dead set against church weddings, but when it comes right down to it Christian’s don’t… Read more »

Jane
Member

Here are a few possibilities that come to mind: Publicly vowing that the parties will be bound not only by the requirements of civil law but explicitly by the biblical responsibilities of marriage; Publicly expressing that the conduct of the marriage will fall under the discipline of the church; Making those vows before the beloved covenant community, not in private before the magistrate; Combining those vows with a service of public worship to represent the marriage not only as a binding contract but as an act of worship, so as to explicitly and publicly give God the glory and beg… Read more »

Jane
Member

BTW, by “optional,” I mean “optional to make the marriage binding.” No one’s arguing that without a church wedding, people aren’t “really married.” The question is whether being married in a church wedding is required (for Christians) as some form of obedience other than “that which is necessary to make the marriage valid,” such as “that which is required as a faithful act of worship” or “that which is required as a matter of fidelity to the covenant community” or something like that. A Christian couple who marries in a civil ceremony only is still married and still responsible for… Read more »

Victor Benalcazar
Guest
Victor Benalcazar

Dear Pastor Doug, I am not in favor of First Things’ marriage pledge, but I have to agree with a previous commenter that your conclusion does not seem to make sense. “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.” Perhaps I misunderstand your point, as the church has never had that legal (statutory) authority in this country. My Roman Catholic persuasion likely also means I lack your perspective.… Read more »

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

They are fully obedient in meeting the spiritual obligations of marriage only if they are – which obviously is not a one day deal. I’d count the ceremony as one more thing we are neither to forbid nor require.

James H. Kuzirian, Rev. Dcn.
Guest
James H. Kuzirian, Rev. Dcn.

Given widower-hood now, and considering whoever and however I might secure as a (second) wife, there is always the financial issue, which is confounded by law, to the effect that a widow who may be receiving her deceased husband’s Social Security payment, will be required to instead receive the lesser amount (her own SS amount), thus making an otherwise practical arrangement to become financially impractical. In my experience, it is always better to have more rather than less. Therefor, I would prefer a Church-Yes Government-N0 marriage, which is evidently quite frequent, though on the QT.