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Should the Church perform ‘legal’ marriages?

As same-sex marriage has become legal in many states—and now, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges—some evangelicals have begun to advocate that clergy members should stop signing marriage certificates. But does it really matter? Two pastors weigh in. We are God’s representatives, not the state’s.

To begin this discussion, one needs to look at the phrase “legal marriage.” The term “legal” indicates the necessity of following a law, which came about through a legislative process. This means that a definition of marriage is required—a definition that has been at the heart of the marriage debate since the beginning.

If one looks at the underlying reasons for the establishment of Christian marriage, we are confronted with the God-given purpose of the creation of children and the needed roles of father and mother in the growth and maturity of these children.

One must also consider the marriage covenant. This is an agreement between God and the man and woman who are entering into a sacred partnership with God. Oaths and promises are proclaimed before God and other witnesses, who are to hold these two individuals accountable for their declarations to God and to each other. Witnesses are required for that specific purpose.

A marriage becomes “legal” when individuals meet the criteria, per the state. The Church has agreed to be the officiant, representing the state in ensuring the requirements are met. But for Christians, this is not the point of marriage.

I believe that church should be the place where vows and commitments to one another are pledged before witnesses, regardless of the legal implications, and result in a covenant between God, a man, and a woman. This kind of marriage ceremony would be just that: a ceremony outside the legal bounds of the state’s definition. Therefore, my belief is that the Church should seriously consider removing itself as the representative of the state and instead be God’s representative in the establishment of the covenant of marriage.

Joe Laher is pastor of Christian Union Brethren in Christ Church in Garrett, Ind.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to engage with our post-Christian culture.

When I sign a marriage license, the state makes no presumption that I operate as its agent. The actual agent of the state is the County Clerk, who must be satisfied that the legal obligations for a marriage are met. My privilege is to celebrate and solemnize the marriage with the couple through rituals ancient and postmodern.

In my home state, “clergy” of any religious background—along with judges, ship’s captains, etc.—are permitted to solemnize a wedding. I always retain the option not to participate in a solemnization of marriage where I, or the Brethren in Christ Church, have fundamental questions. The effort to redefine civil marriage in the U.S. has received legal sanction, and we ought to respond by focusing on the pastoral effort of communicating more clearly the meanings of marriage within a biblical framework.

Thus, the so-called “Marriage Pledge,” in which clergy vow not to sign marriage licenses, seems to me to be an artful dodge—a way to pretend the complex realities of post-Christendom do not exist in the U.S., and a way to avoid meaningful engagement with couples regarding the truth and grace of marriage in a Christian context.

Would I prefer my state to further separate the act of marriage into a contract of civil union and a separate, optional, religious solemnization? Yes. But I do not believe the Marriage Pledge helps us make such a helpful, clear separation of church and state. On the contrary, I believe it accepts the premise that in some instances, clergy ought rightfully to be agents of the state—a position for which I am unable to find biblical justification.

Jeff Wright is pastor of Madison Street Church in Riverside, Calif.

This article originally appeared in the fall/winter 2015 issue of In Part magazine.

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