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MarriageWhen the most recent issue of First Things arrived earlier this month, I was surprised to see an article by R. R. Reno which encouraged pastors and ministers to stop signing government-provided marriage certificates.

“The Marriage Pledge” intends to preserve the church’s purity in recognizing true marriage for what it is and in disassociating from the government’s adoption of false and increasingly nonsensical views of marriage.

Reno’s reasoning is prompted by our contemporary context. He writes:

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.

So what is the solution? Reno calls for a separation of civil and Christian marriage, and he encourages pastors to sign the pledge:

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.

The pledge has gained traction in the past two weeks. The initial list of signatures represents a variety of denominations.

The Pledge and the Pushback

But “The Marriage Pledge” has its critics, as proponents of biblical marriage differ on the strategic benefits and drawbacks of making such a move.

Ryan Anderson worries that “debating whether religious communities should perform civil marriages undermines the more urgent task of teaching the truth about marriage.”

Russell Moore doesn’t rule out Reno’s possibility in the future, but he doesn’t believe this is the time for such action:

When a congregation certifies a biblically married couple to be also civilly married, the congregation is not affirming the state’s definition of marriage. Instead, the Church is witnessing to the state’s role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society. We are bearing witness to the fact that these unions are the business of the larger society in ways other unions aren’t.

John Stonestreet of the Colson Center also cautions against signing the pledge:

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?

A Retreat or a Rending

Writing for The Week, Damon Linker interprets the Marriage Pledge as a “watershed retreat” for the religious right, an echo of 20th century fundamentalist withdrawal from society:

Reno seems to believe that the institution of civil marriage has been so compromised and defiled that churches will get their hands dirty by participating in it at all, even when the wedding involves a traditional marriage between a man and a woman, and even if the husband and wife pledge to live their lives and raise their children in full conformity with church teaching.

This is an astonishing proposal that would signal an unprecedented retreat of theologically conservative churches from engagement in American public life. That it is being put forward by a magazine dedicated, until now, to halting and reversing that retreat is extraordinary — and a particularly striking sign of the religious right’s rapid collapse into a defensive, sectarian subculture.

Reno has responded by making a distinction between “rending” and “retreating:”

Rending is a gesture of resistance. In this instance, rending the close relation between matrimony and the legal forms of union provided by the state we are asserting an inconvenient truth: government marriage is not Christian marriage. What marriage is does not correspond to its legal definition in an increasing number of jurisdictions. We need to state this truth clearly through our actions—the Marriage Pledge is one possible course of action—so that we have a firm basis to speak about the truth of marriage to our very confused society.


Corina and I will celebrate our twelfth anniversary on December 21. Or December 6, if you count our civil ceremony.

In Romania, the civil and religious ceremonies of marriage are not the same, due primarily to the fact that evangelical ministers do not have the authority to act as ministers of the state. (And I don’t think my Baptist friends there would accept the authority if it were offered to them.)

Our December 6 journey to the Courthouse with friends, family, and witnesses was a hoop to jump through. We’ve never considered the 6th to be our anniversary because the civil ceremony was simply a precursor to the real moment of marriage, which took place in Corina’s church.

I’m not saying that now is the time for a divorce between civil and Christian marriage. I haven’t signed the pledge. (I’m with Tolkien, not Lewis on this issue.) But I do think we can learn something from brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who have never had nor sought the ministerial privileges of authorizing civil marriage.

The day will likely come when ministers who act as agents of the state will be required to participate in the charade of same-sex marriage. On that day, the rending will be complete, but it will have come from the government’s side.

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11 thoughts on “Why Christian Pastors Are Divided On “The Marriage Pledge””

  1. Joe Bruce says:

    Since secular lawyers have usurped the word “marriage”, I think we should institute male-female civil unions legally – “true marriage”, although we may not officially call it that anymore – as an ALTERNATIVE to the phony new secular anything-goes definition of marriage, BEFORE retreating from civil marriage. We do need a legal recognition of the marriage bond because of the procreative aspect of male-female marriage. One of the primary reasons marriage evolved is to codify the family structure around children. ALSO, I think if we started state campaigns for male-female civil unions (we may need a better name but …) it would be something POSITIVE we could all be fighting for, instead of the tired “defending marriage” slogan. We would be fighting to recognizing something very obvious about human beings, something every honest person knows is important, and we could frame it in a strong way, similar to the way early gay marriage advocates did. “We Demand Recognition of the Unique Reality of Male-Female Unions” and “If You Don’t Like Male-Female Unions Don’t Have One”. May sound far out but I think the idea could be developed and bring more sensible laws as well as raise awareness of what marriage really is and always was in the first place.

  2. Eric says:

    Good perspective. The civil marriage in the eyes of government lacks power. Only our Lord through faith is able to unite two into one. It is better to take this by faith, than to make a petition. A petition is only a piece of paper recognized by men. As long as we believe that men need to recognize our spiritual state, we will not be on the ground of faith. God is the one that we answer to, and His thoughts are the only ones that matter.

  3. Wesley says:

    Appreciate your words Trevin as well as the offering of other voices on this issue. I’m with you in saying that as long as the government is not requiring us to perform same-sex marriages we should not seek to rend. I pray there is also something of a kingdom-presence as well in our present joining of biblical marriage to civil marriage ceremonies that – until it is lost – we will not see the full impact of.

  4. Dan Glover says:

    Here are a couple good rejoinders from Douglas Wilson, a fellow minister and friend of one of the more prominent reformed signers of the Pledge, Peter Leithart.
    Leithart replies to some of Wilson’s concerns/objections in the first link here:

    Of all the critiques of the Pledge I have seen, I think the most important one is that it was narrowly conceived and consulted on prior to being acted upon. For a move that is meant to be a statement of the church to the increasingly anti-Christian state and to a secularized and secularizing society, it ought not to have surprised and blindsided so much of the church. To my knowledge, no denomination containing ministers who signed the Pledge was first engaged in the framing of the Pledge or, prior to that, even in the discussion process of whether or not the Pledge was an appropriate move to make at this stage in the current conflict. As a result, something that was no doubt intended as a unified stand around which the faithful from the church could rally has had the effect of dividing the church into supporters and detractors of the Pledge. Anything that so divides those who otherwise agree on the biblical parameters for marriage has to be seen as poorly conceived or at least poorly implemented. Look at how much energy is being expended arguing about the merits of the Pledge rather than being focused on defending God’s teaching on marriage in the face of real-time cultural attacks. Both sides of this debate actually agree on far, far more than they disagree on. What a shame that there was not a truly ecclesiastical (within denominations) and ecumenical (across denominations) conversation and consensus first.

  5. Jack Hartford says:

    Marriage, by its very definition, has legal consequences. If the state does not recognize the marriage, there is no way to enforce property rights, child custody issues, alimony, etc. in the event of a divorce. I’m baffled why any minister would refuse to marry a couple in a way that is legally recognized, or at a minimum, require a legal marriage. I guess a minister doing so would not be performing a marriage as much as a ritual, ceremony or sacrament.

  6. Philmonomer says:

    The day will likely come when ministers who act as agents of the state will be required to participate in the charade of same-sex marriage. On that day, the rending will be complete, but it will have come from the government’s side.

    This is never going to happen. The mere fact that you think it might shows how unconnected to reality the whole SSM debate can be.

    1. pat says:

      Not sure where you’re coming from on this comment. It already has happened at least once, at a “public” chapel in Idaho. It will expand from there because, in fact, ministers ARE acting as agents of the state when they sign licenses.

      1. Philmonomer says:

        Nope. It never happened. (And those ministers don’t have to perform same sex marriages.)

  7. Adam O says:

    I agree with Lewis’ quote referenced in the CT article. Not because Christianity is exclusively personal, as though its truth does not apply to the world, but because of the way that truth is witnessed to the world. The church is not the moral authority for the Kingdom of Man, the Church is a through-a-glass-dimly image of the Kingdom of God. Our role as the people of God is not to govern the world, but to be an image for the world. The church is recovering our image-bearer status as the Holy Spirit works in/through us as a people. Does this mean that the world of secular government would not benefit objectively from practicing what is seen in this image, certainly not. I agree that this is part of what it means for Christianity to be true, that God’s design, expressed in Christ, and blurrily imaged through the church is, indeed, best for human flourishing. Our humility, should give us great pause at attempting to impose through the secular sword governance by the standards of sin that we discern from our interpretations of Scripture and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. We should question whether we are operating under the assumption that part of Christian duty is to keep society from collapsing. I just don’t see Jesus and Paul worrying about this problem or arguing that it is a key part of the mission for God’s people. They seem to assume instead that the church can fulfill its mission even in the context of a pagan state like Rome. It would be interesting to see how they would speak into a world where Christians share the power of governance for their society, but I don’t think we should so quickly assume that they would support our efforts to legitimize the mission of the church through the arm of the state. The argument that “this human practice is sinful and does not lead to the best kind of human society/existence” is fundamentally different than “secular authorities need to ban this action for the perseverance of good society.” Before we fight and expend energies on something, let’s make sure it really is part of the mission of God’s people.

    1. vj says:

      THIS is awesome!!! The distinction you make between the Church [not] being the Moral Authority for the World versus being a reflection/image of the Kingdom of God is just such a wonderfully clear explanation. And I have never before realized that, as you point out, both Jesus and the writers of the New Testament seem to take for granted that we will live under non-Church government authorities – and that they don’t require us to be particularly bothered by that… All early believers were outsiders, we shouldn’t mind so much when we are too!

  8. Don Meeks says:

    As a pastor who has been in this discussion (renouncing state’s authority to certify licenses) for over a year with our church’s governing body, and with actual couples seeking to be married, I appreciate the wider conversation that is taking shape. I offer the following observations from “the trenches.”

    First, no one I have spoken with (elders, couples, fellow ministers) has ever given much thought to the distinction between the civil contract and the ecclesiastical covenant. Everyone assumes these to be one and the same. Only when suggesting they be “de-coupled” do people begin to think through the implications of both. This is a good thing to think about in my view.

    Second, in conversation with couples, making the distinction (contract vs. covenant) allows me to lift up the covenantal purposes of marriage in new and fresh ways. It brings a tighter focus to the reasons they want to get married “in the church” and the purposes/responsibilities of Christian marriage. This, too, is a good thing.

    Third, my objection allows me to focus not only on how culture’s definition of marriage deviates from historic Christian faith, but more importantly, it allows me to lift up the corruption of the culture’s “practice” of marriage. Namely, weddings are increasingly about the staging the “event” to which I am merely one of the vendors, alongside the caterer, DJ, and photographer. Any sense of the mystical union of Christ and his church is buried under save the date cards, table decorations and floral packages. And don’t get me started about the stewardship of resources!

    Finally, my objection has stirred quite a conversation within the congregation. “What do you mean, you’re not going to do weddings anymore??” “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to “do weddings,” I said I’m not going to sign licenses anymore.” “What? I”m confused” And from there I am able to talk about church vs. state, cultural captivity, discipleship in exile, my pastoral calling, stewardship. All the things I think are really important to talk about with people.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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