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Is it Time for the Church to Give Up on Civil Marriage?

Some 60 percent of Americans live in a state where the definition of marriage has been changed to include same-sex couples. And the Supreme Court may soon enshrine the new definition nationwide.


In response, Christian churches and denominations, including evangelicals, are dividing between those who believe what Scripture and the church have always taught about human sexuality and marriage, and those who prefer to change with the times.


And, as I have written in a new article at BreakPoint.org, there is further disagreement among those who hold an historically orthodox view of marriage, about how we should best move forward in response to the state that seems hell-bent on denying it.


Writing in First Things last week, Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz have proposed what they call “The Marriage Pledge.” Because, they say, “the new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman,” they’ve asked clergy to “disengage” civil marriage from Christian marriage in the performance of pastoral duties.


Those who sign the pledge “will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage . . . will no longer sign government-provided marriage documents . . .  [and] will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings.”


In practical terms, this means that once a couple makes vows before God in church, they’ll need to go see a justice of the peace to sign civil marriage documents for legal purposes. This is already how it works in other countries, like Germany, or closer to home, Mexico.


And the pledge is getting a lot of positive responses. The clergy of my church have signed, and my colleague Anne Morse, who wrote for Chuck Colson for many years here at BreakPoint, has supported it as well.


And I fully agree with Anne that Chuck would have been “proud of these Christian ministers” for standing for their convictions on marriage. But I don’t agree that he would have endorsed this pledge.


And neither do I endorse this pledge. At least not yet.


Now before I explain, let me be clear: I understand what the pledge signers—my brothers and sisters in Christ—are trying to do. And in no way do I question their motives or commitment to the orthodox view of marriage. Neither side here is “compromising.” This is a question of strategy. And here is why I differ.


First of all, there’s nothing on a state marriage license that requires clergy to say that marriage is something that it is not. But by refusing to sign any marriage licenses, we’re missing an opportunity to proclaim to the state and to the public what marriage truly is.


Second, by backing out of the civil marriage business, we risk perpetuating that illusion that marriage is something the government defines instead of something it recognizes, and we perpetuate the myth that the Christian view of marriage is only for us Christians. In fact, marriage existed before the church and before the state. It’s the job of both institutions to recognize it.


And here’s a question that bothers me. If clergy should not participate in civil marriage, why should laity? If it’s wrong for pastors, isn’t it wrong for parishioners?


Now, there may come a time when the state asks Christian ministers as agents of the state to participate in same-sex ceremonies. When that time comes, then yes, absolutely, no question, they should refuse.


And at that time, we may be forced out of the civil marriage business. If that happens, so be it. But let’s be forced. Let’s be forced out of the public square—not leave willingly. Instead of graciously bowing out, I ask ministers to graciously stay in to proclaim the truth of marriage, as well as their allegiance to an authority higher than that of the state.


There’s much more to say about the Marriage Pledge—and why now is not the time to sign it--and you can read it, as well as several responses, and my full article by coming to BreakPoint.org. Please read it and share it with your pastor. We need to be thinking now about what we are going to do in this brave new world.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: November 26, 2014

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