Christopher Seitz and I recently formulated a “marriage pledge,” which First Things has hosted. It asks signers who are pastors to stop signing civil marriage licences as part of the Christian marriages at which they officiate, In this way, they will give public notice that Christian marriage is not what the state calls “marriage.”
This proposed pledge has already given rise to surprisingly wide debate, including a fair amount of criticism. That is fine with me, and I have a great deal of sympathy for many who disagree. For I myself have changed my mind about the present relationship of civil and Christian marriage.
Only a little while ago, I defended the practice of having clergy sign civil marriage licenses, and so act as “vicars” of the state in this regard. Was this not a good bridge that the Church could maintain with the larger society? Might it not allow for some witness “from within,” and thus influence? Yet rather suddenly, over the past months, something finally came into view for me and shook me up. The following question was forced upon me: What, in fact, is the character of the “marriages” recognized by our society more broadly? Is it or is it not at one with, or in deep continuity with, Christian marriage?
I have, until recently, assumed that the two were coherent, more or less. And in this, I was following a long Christian tradition. The Churcheven granting differences here between Protestants and Catholicshas understood any “natural” marriage as a true marriage before God. The marriages of Hindus, atheists, and Quakers have been so acknowledged. When two people civilly married came to the Church, they were already “married” in a way the Church acknowledged (whether in sacramental terms or not). The Church had no interest in “redoing” their marriage, the way they might redo ordinations for different Christian traditions. They certainly did not consider a church blessing of a civil marriage to be like a baptism for the non-Christian. Why? Because the creation-rooted character of all marriage was granted to be present in “civil” marriages everywhere: “from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female; for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two shall be one flesh. . . . What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:69; Gen. 3:24). Believer, unbeliever, Israelite, Gentile: All marriage was seen to emerge from and reflect this primordial reality from God.
Lots of things began to change in the last sixty years or so: easy divorce, multiple remarriages, and so on. Yet even through these changes, we have tended (although here some differences between churches have come into play) to acknowledge the coincidence of “natural” and Christian marriage in a fundamental way. When statistics are published by sociologists and government census keepers about “married” or “single” or “living together but not married,” Christians have gone along and said “yes, these categories make sense.”
What I now realize, though, is that what was going on all these years was not just a lowering of standards for marriage, but an actual erosion of this common reality that had so long held between civil or natural marriage and Christian marriage. The two had been slowly pulling apart. Even, initially, the advent of same-sex “marriage” by various nations and states did not strike me as an insuperable separation: after all, there are just a few of these (and there still are, fortunately), and it won’t go very far or fast.
Yet over this past year, I have realized I was wrong on the “far and fast” side of things. And so wrong, in fact, that, having blinked a moment, I now opened my eyes to see the ruined husk of marriage in the civil sphere very clearly. And I also began to see appearingand this is importantthe dissolving foundations of Christian and ecclesial understandings of our own marriage framework, unconsciously if nothing else. Our larger culture, in articulated formal legal formulae, has indeed forgotten and dismantled the reality of natural marriage altogether. Period.
Should I no longer consider two civilly “married” persons who join the Church to be “in fact” married before God? It is not that I now assume they are not. Rather, it is the case that “I cannot know” any longer. If they are Christian, or come from some other traditional culture and even religion, I can perhaps assume they are (for now). And I am no judge, after all. Still, just because I can no longer know, it is incumbent upon me to fulfill my duties as a pastor, upheld by my preaching and teaching, in a way that articulates what is certain: When a marriage is done before God explicitly, by a man and woman who have heard the Scriptures that say “from the beginning of the creation . . . what God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” and these persons have said “yes” to this, then here is a true marriage.
Does acknowledging the dissolution of a common sense of natural marriage mean that I no longer care about this culture, and the common laws we make? Of course not! No more than the fact that I consider same-sex partnerships intrinsically disordered means that I do not care about the human rights to full citizenship, health, and security for gay people. Although some in the gay inclusion movement seem to think the two follow, just as do some on the other side, they are wrong. I have in fact written about these matters publicly.
But how best to reform this culture and civil society with respect to the truths of natural marriage? By continuing to say publicly, through our ecclesial acts, that what the state calls “marriage” is in fact natural marriage, to be recognized as such by the Church? This seems unlikely. Rather, reform will happen by the conversion of spirit through witness to true marriage, and by the hard work of political and civil discourse, persuasion, organization and the rest that finally sways the culture-forming legislation of a society. And that, I believe, is now a long-term project that demands a very different posture than what we have adopted to this point.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.