It’s time to make a clear distinction between the government-enforced legal regime of marriage and the biblical covenant of marriage. In the past, the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms. Now the courts have redefined rather than recognized marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state’s control. That’s why it’s now time to stop speaking of civil marriage and instead talk about government marriagecalling it what it is.
As the legal reality of marriage changes, we must also act. If the churches continue as if nothing has changed, the message is that for all our strong words nothing really decisive is at stake. It’s now time, then, to think long and hard about what we need to door refuse to do.
I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.” Perhaps he should strike those absurdities and write “Husband” and “Wife.” Failing that he should simply refuse the government’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”
Getting out of the government marriage business is exactly what Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz now urge. They’ve formulated a pastoral pledge. It requires ordained ministers to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates. I find their reasoning convincing. Easy divorce, pre-nuptial agreements, a general tolerance of cohabitation, the contraceptive mentalitythis degrades and obscures the meaning of marriage. But redefining marriage so that male-female complementarity is irrelevant? That’s a fundamental contradiction of the most fundamental meaning of marriage.
In many jurisdictions, including many of the United States, civil authorities have adopted a definition of marriage that explicitly rejects the age-old requirement of male-female pairing. In a few short years or even months, it is very likely that this new definition will become the law of the land, and in all jurisdictions the rights, privileges, and duties of marriage will be granted to men in partnership with men, and women with women.
As Christian ministers we must bear clear witness. This is a perilous time. Divorce and co-habitation have weakened marriage. We have been too complacent in our responses to these trends. Now marriage is being fundamentally redefined, and we are being tested yet again. If we fail to take clear action, we risk falsifying God’s Word.
The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.
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.
For a long time Christianity has sewn its teachings into the fabric of Western culture. That was a good thing. A Christian culture is not the same as a Christian community. No society is a church, no matter how thoroughly Christian its ethos. But as David Bentley Hart has written so eloquently, such a society will participate, however imperfectly, in the heavenly civilization of love. But the season of sewing is ending. Now is a time for rending, not for the sake of disengaging from culture or retreating from the public square, but so that our salt does not lose its savor.
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R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.
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