Sunday, June 28, 2015

Your work, pastor, as an agent of the state

" the authority vested in me as a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
and the laws of this state..."

Thus, thousands of Southern Baptist clergy complete a marriage ceremony by some fashion or wording invoking the authority granted them by the government, the state.

How are you feeling about that now, brethren?

I've done only a few dozen weddings and seems like I came to the place where I would leave out the business about the state. I would, nonetheless, sign the state's marriage form and duly return it to the court house.

Known to all except those holed up in a cave, sans cellphone, is the recent Supreme Court ruling that expanded, nationwide, the right of a state-recognized marriage to include same sex couples.

So, how is it that those who believe marriage has been, is, and always should be between a man and a woman would continue to serve as an agent of the government in this business of marriage? Even if the minister officiates at a wedding he deems acceptable on the basis that the couple before him is a man and a woman, should he act in the role of the state's agent in doing so?

Some ministers have separated themselves from signing the marriage forms of the state for some time. There is a movement that asks ministers to pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage. Some religious traditions already maintain that separation.

Southern Baptists generally handle both in their churches and through their ordained clergy. Have the ceremony. Sign the license. Let the wedding photographer take a photo of the distinguished, berobed minister, affixing his John Henry to the paper. Boom. It's done (so long as someone gets the paper back to the proper office to be recorded).

I'm just asking a question here. Why would SBC clergy who almost universally condemn the recent SCOTUS decision, even think about participating in this system. We don't have to. The state isn't going to compel the minister to perform a ceremony or sign any state document.

So why would we?

Tradition. Convenience to those being married. Simple one-step process, a single ceremony fixes the marriage (at least for a while) both in the "eyes of God" and "according to the laws of this state."

Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage which one can sign (up to July 3rd, so says the website) but that says nothing about being an agent of the government in marrying people.

Ed Stetzer, our statistical sage, opines that more Christians will take the route of opting out of "government-sanctioned" by which I assumes he means that clergy will opt out but couples will still obtain the necessary licenses and execute them properly without the preacher's help. Stetzer has no figures on the opt-out, the matter hasn't been surveyed I presume, but I'd guess that very few SBC clergy have such a personal policy.

I'm not sure what is the best course for the minister. I recently learned that a lay friend was asked to perform a wedding. He sent off for some online minister credentials and did it. One would have to say that (a) it isn't the state's business to judge who is an authentic minister and who is not, but also (b) wholesale credentialing devalues the whole lot of us. This makes me want to at least maintain that no sham minister can perform a wedding in my church whether or not the state recognizes the novelty ordination.

One strange thing about the ministerial marriage license opt-out is the odd group of religious traditions it brings together. Protestant and Catholic. Liberal and conservative. All find reasons that this is attractive to them.

Most SBC clergy already have a hybrid system for officiating weddings. I don't know a single pastor-colleague who doesn't have some personal policy about divorce. Some will not perform weddings involving divorced people. Some will perform any wedding regardless of divorce. Some take each divorce case and evaluate it by his personal standards after which he tells the couple 'yea' or 'nay' on officiating. The fact that the state recognized the divorce is not relevant. Makes us sound so Roman Catholic, doesn't it.

So, Where do my ministerial colleagues stand on this?  w


Ed T. said...

Interesting article, William. I hope a good number of your fellow ministers will weigh in.

Anonymous said...

I know plenty of SBC ministers that marry couples where the wife is already expecting and/or couples who have been living together for months if not years. Marrying gay people is not a whole lot different in reality. Sin is sin.

In my city there are SBC ministers who will be performing gay marriages and some of them are very welcoming to gay folks in their churches.

Signs of the times.

Blessed said...

Hey William,

Granted Pastors are already catching on to this trend but need to catch up. Here is a write up on how to marry others without a license and/or being an agent of the state.