The next several years are going to be messy for Christians. We already know that some who claim to be within our fold will continue to challenge the historic, orthodox teaching about sexuality, marriage, and the essence of what it means to be made in the image of God. But even those of us who agree that marriage is what the church has always thought it was, will disagree on how best to move forward in a culture hell-bent on denying it.
Case in point: Over at First Things, a premier publication of Christian thought, Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz have offered what they refer to as “The Marriage Pledge,” calling clergy of all stripes to no longer sign government documents of civil marriage. To be a “clear witness,” they have decided they “will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage” because to do so would be to “implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.”
This is an idea that has been kicked around for some time. Past First Things articles have suggested it, as has my friend S. Michael Craven in his guest contribution to my recent book “Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.” Among those who have signed The Marriage Pledge are the clergy of my own church here in Colorado Springs. And Anne Morse, one of our terrific writers here at the Colson Center, has praised these clergy for distancing themselves from American lawmakers who are “increasingly making nonsense of marriage.”
Because Anne worked closely with Chuck Colson for decades, I hesitate to disagree with her. No doubt, as Anne writes, Chuck “would have been proud of these ministers” and their commitment to stand on their convictions. In that respect, they exemplify at least part of what he hoped to accomplish with the Manhattan Declaration.
However, I do not think that he would have agreed with this pledge. Neither do I.
Before I go into my reasons, let me first clarify that those who disagree on whether or not to sign this Pledge do not disagree about the nature, definition, or importance of marriage. Rather, we disagree about what to do, now that the state has denied the clear definition of marriage.
I should also make clear that I do not think—not in the least—that any clergy who have signed the Pledge, or anyone—like Anne Morse—who thinks clergy should sign, has “compromised” in any way. (And, I hope they do not think that of me or any of others—like Ryan Anderson, Douglas Wilson,Russell Moore, or Edward Peters—who disagree). My own clergy members who signed the pledge, and who have graciously and vigorously engaged with me on this topic, have more than earned their stripes by standing for marriage in a church that famously, over the last several decades, became neo-pagan. They fought hard before re-organizing under a different denominational identity.
No, ours is a disagreement of strategy and timing, not of faithfulness.
There may very well come a time when the church must take this step. It is quite conceivable that church officials will be forced out of the civil marriage business and not even given the option of being an agent of the state. But my view is that we’ll know when that time comes—because we’ll have been forced out. But let them do it to us. Let’s not leave before then.
This conversation reminds me of 2012. Remember when Louis Giglio stepped down from praying at President Barack Obama’s second Inauguration? The four years between the first and second Inaugurations had made quite a difference. Rick Warren was allowed to pray at the first, despite having vocally spoken out for marriage that same year during California’s Proposition 8 battle. But the critics were far less tolerant of Giglio four years later, even though the only evidence they could find of his so-called homophobia was nearly twenty years old. In light of the controversy, Giglio decided to graciously back out.
I think Giglio made a mistake—not because he was gracious, but because he backed out. I think he should have graciously stayed in. There’s a world of difference between being disinvited and backing out, and one can be gracious either way. I understand Giglio’s reasoning, but in a culture that needs to know where the church stands on things like sexuality and marriage and sin and the Gospel, it was the wrong strategy at the wrong time.
In my view, “The Marriage Pledge” commits the same strategic mistake, only on a much larger scale. We may, in fact, get disinvited from marrying people, and perhaps we’ll even be forcibly removed from this part of the public square. But let’s not leave of our own accord. We can be just as gracious one way as the other, with handcuffs or without.
And clergy can still marry people without compromising the biblical view. As Edward Peters notes, there is nothing on a civil marriage license itself that requires clergy to say marriage is something that it is not. But by refusing to proclaim to the state that those the church chooses to marry are indeed married, we are missing an opportunity to proclaim in the public square what marriage, in truth, is. R. R. Reno suggests that by having a separate church wedding and refusing to sign the state’s marriage license, the church is claiming marriage for itself, and we won’t let it be confused with what the state is now calling marriage. Perhaps, but that assumes people are listening. The boy who takes his ball and goes home isn’t playing anymore, and pretty soon is forgotten.
It could come across from that analogy that I think the state is the one defining the game. Not at all, or at least not any more than players define baseball. Underneath my point is this reality: Marriage is not created by the state, nor is it created by the church. Marriage precedes both church and state, and both are responsible to recognize it wherever it happens. When the church recognizes a marriage, it also proclaims it to the state. This we should continue to do.
By backing out of the civil marriage business, we risk reinforcing the growing opinion that our views on marriage are valid only to us and belong only in the private, religious recesses of our culture. We also risk perpetuating the very troubling myth that marriage is something that government defines, instead of something it recognizes. If we are still in the business, we can remind them. If not, we can’t.
Of course, whether the church can be a legitimate agent of the state without compromise is a valid question. But keep in mind that the church is not an agent of the state per se; it only serves as one in this matter. And don’t agents of the state who demonstrate and proclaim their loyalty to a higher authority have a stronger witness than someone who is not an agent of the state at all?
I’ve already heard of, and even met, several justices of the peace who have either resigned or who now refuse to marry anyone because they may be asked to marry same-sex couples. I understand the dilemma, but to them I say, “Stay in the game! Keep your post, but refuse to render to Caesar authority that does not belong to him. Get fired! Get censured! Get sued! Be nice and kind, but firm; keep the witness as long as you can.”
I realize, of course, that it is easy for me to say this to a justice of the peace from this side of the keyboard. I won’t face that sort of trouble for simply writing a book on the issue. I may get some angry tweets, but that’s not much to worry about. But, with apologies for my cushy position, I still think it’s the right thing to do. It’s what I would try to do if I were in that person’s place.
Clergy members are like justices of the peace, but with a much more protected position because of our religious freedoms, such as they currently are. So they have even more reason to stay in the game. And since the more troubling cultural problem is the precipitous decline of marriage rates in general, taking our exit now would be tantamount to saying that people who really are legitimately married for us are not married for the state.
“But we are marrying them—in a church wedding,” the response might be. True, but because marriage is a creational reality, not a church one, I can’t see how we ought to recognize it in the church while not also proclaiming to the state (and everyone else) that “these two are now one flesh” in a way that others are not. In this way, the church has the unique role of simultaneously being an agent of and a messenger to the state. When it plays this role, it reminds the state of whose world this really is.
Of course, the moment that clergy are asked to marry same-sex couples, they ought flatly to refuse. Period. End of story. And at that point, we’ll have to decide our next step. But let’s not step too soon out of the marriage game happening in the public square.
This brings up two other arguments against “The Marriage Pledge,” neither of which originates with me. First, the document suggests that the couple being married by the church should go off on their own to claim the benefits of civil marriage bestowed by state. But if it is wrong for clergy to be involved with the state on marriage, how is it less wrong for the laity to be involved?
This is a real problem, and creates more problems. For example, if we are to consider church marriage different from civil marriage, by what means will the church enforce its understanding of marriage and divorce to those married by the church? Why should anyone listen?
Even more, if same-sex marriage demands our separation from civil marriage, aren’t we late to the game? Why didn’t we take this step when no-fault divorce made marriage vows a mockery, and children the victim of a parent’s “right to be happy”? Shouldn’t we have done this a long time ago?
Well, we didn’t, and I argue we shouldn’t have. Instead, we should have been more serious about what it means to be married. We should have displayed a little more courage in the matter of whom we married and whom we did not, as well as how we handled those we married that violated their vows. But we didn’t, because that would have “gotten in the way of the Gospel,” or something like that.
In our book “Same-Sex Marriage,” Sean McDowell and I suggest that in this brave new world we’ll need to be more creative. As a model, we point to Daniel, who was faced with two options: Eat the king’s meat or be killed. But Daniel came up with a third option, which allowed him to honor his commitment “not to defile himself with the king’s food” and still stay in the game and influence the power center of Babylon.
Have we really exhausted all of our other options? Have we even thought of all of our options? I don’t think so. Let’s stay in a while longer, pray for strength and wisdom, stand our ground on our convictions, and see what happens. When it’s time to go, we’ll know by the pushy state arm that will be squarely in the center of our backs.
John Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow of the Colson Center and, along with Eric Metaxas, host of BreakPoint Radio. This article was originally posted at the BreakPoint.org website.