TGC Asks: Should pastors separate…


…the Christian wedding ceremony from the civil rite?

Over at The Gospel Coalition Collin Hansen posted a most interesting blog post/article. I am hoping you will take the time to read the entire article along with the comment section. Here is the top section of Hansen’s post followed by my own pointed opinion.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker did not surprise observers when he decided on August 4 to overturn Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. But as Albert Mohler and others have noted, Walker handed advocates of homosexuality a clear victory with strongly worded language that dismissed defenders of traditional marriage as irrational. He dispatched with centuries of custom and wisdom, taking it upon himself to redefine marriage and assert, “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage.” He also drove a wedge between religious and civil marriage:

Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.

Religious and civil marriage have historically been closely linked in America, many of whose founders inherited their views from 16th-century Genevan reformer John Calvin. Splitting with fellow reformer Martin Luther on the issue, Calvin required engaged couples in Geneva to register with civil magistrates, according to John Witte Jr., author of From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. They received from the magistrate a marriage certificate, which they gave to a pastor. He would then announce their pending marriage for three weeks in a row, thereby inviting anyone to offer objections privately. If authorities heard no objections or found them unpersuasive, the couple would be married in the church within six weeks. Thus, Calvin set a pattern linking religious and civil marriage that persists in America today.

Perhaps the time has come, however, for pastors to rethink this position. Some leaders, including D. A. Carson, have already declared their preference for more clearly differentiating between civil and religious marriage, citing practices in other nations, particularly France. I surveyed four experienced pastors for a new feature, TGC Asks: Should pastors separate the Christian wedding ceremony from the civil rite?

Immediately following the above the opinions of pastors Steve Dewitt, Ryan Kelly, Jay Thomas and Bob Bixby weighed in.
Read the entire post here:
I left the following comment.

“Interesting question. I did not notice if anyone mentioned the fact that officiating at a marriage is not a duty defined by God’s Word for pastors in the first place. The honor was always a privilege granted by the state. Officiating at funerals is another task that is generally accepted to be the Biblical role of a pastor but once again the Word of God is silent. The fact is we need to first examine the role of pastors with God’s Word before we complain to the state concerning its failure to honor God’s word.”

In our assemblies it is the Christian pastor who encourages God’s lambs to live by revealed truth. Perhaps he needs to do the same in this matter? What does your Bible say?
A portion of D.A. Carson’s declared preference is helpful.

“…I would argue that marriage is a creation ordinance, not a church ordinance. I’m not sure that ministers of the gospel should be involved in the legal matters of weddings at all. I rather like the practices that have developed in France (though I admit that they developed for all the wrong reasons). There, every marriage must be officiated by a state functionary. Christians will then have a further service/ceremony/celebration, invoking the blessing of God and restating vows before a larger circle of family and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. Similarly, Christians seeking to be married may well undergo pre-marital counseling offered by the church. But the legal act of the wedding is performed exclusively by the state. That is one way of making clear that marriage is not a distinctively Christian ordinance (though it has special significance for Christians, including typological significance calling to mind the union of Christ and the church) ; it is for a man/woman pair everywhere, converted or not, Christian or not—truly a creation ordinance. Ideally, of course, the state should adopt the same standards for marriage and divorce as those demanded by Scripture. But where that is not so—whether by sanctioning marriages after prohibited divorces, or by sanctioning marriages between persons of the same sex, or whatever—Christians will be the first to insist that because we take our cues and mandates from Scripture, our own standards for what will pass for an acceptable marriage will not necessarily be those of the state. So our own members will observe the biblical standards, regardless of what the state permits. The tensions we feel on these occasions arise from one of the most obvious truths in the New Testament: we live in the period of inaugurated eschatology, in the period between the “already” and the “not yet. ” As a result we have two citizenships. We owe allegiance to “Caesar, ” to our country in this world, and we owe allegiance to the kingdom of God. But where the two allegiances conflict, we must obey God rather than human beings. In this light, and remembering the history of marriage in the Western world, ministers of the gospel who perform marriages (as I do) better remember that when they do so, they are not performing a sacrament, or making a marriage union more holy; they are functioning as officials of the state, licensed by them. They are discharging their duties as citizens of an earthly kingdom. Then, in the larger service in which the wedding is performed, they may also be discharging their duties as Christian ministers—assigning to marriage a much higher value than the state does, drawing attention to Christian obligations for husbands and wives, reminding all present of the wonderful typological connection between Christ and the church, and so forth. In France, all of these Christian duties are separated from the legal marriage vows themselves; here, they are integrated (in church weddings) precisely because the minister is serving both as a minister of the gospel and as a minister of the state. It is this intertwining of church-based and state-based obligations that makes some of these matters of divorce and remarriage so difficult. One of the purposes of the ecclesiastical court is to sort out the hard cases.” Read the complete document.

~ Moe
About our publisher: Maurice “Moe” Bergeron
At the present time Moe serves on the pastoral team of Sovereign Grace Fellowship located in Boscawen, New Hampshire. For fourteen years he served as pastor for Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Salem, NH.  He has also enjoyed speaking engagements at numerous churches and conference venues in the North East United States and the Virgin Islands.
On the Internet front our brother did establish Piper’s Notes in 1995 which for many years had served as the foundation for the sermon library for Dr. John Piper and Desiring God. For a brief history of Moe’s relationship to John Piper and Desiring God open to this blog page at Desiring God.