When 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
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.