Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Settle for First Things Marriage Pledge?


Is this the answer?

First Things, an evangelical think tank with Roman Catholic sympathies, has come up with the "Marriage Pledge" to try and resolves what appears to be an imminent capitulation by United States courts to gay marriage.

In the Marriage Pledge, ministers who oppose gay marriage can affirm their position and vow to only perform religious marriage ceremonies, with no civil aspect involved.  In other words, the couple married by the minister will be wed before God, but not the state.  The couple will still need to arrange for a marriage license separately.  Currently, most churches help the couple handle this detail in conjunction with the religious ceremony.

At first blush, the idea fits nicely with my own personal idea, in which the Church reclaims marriage altogether, revoking the very term "marriage" from any civil ceremony, and restoring matrimony as not just a religious act, but a distinctly Judeo-Christian one.

Pretty counter-cultural, huh?

With the Marriage Pledge, meanwhile, there is no sweeping, defiant revolution.  There is no judicial advocacy, or vote, or legislation, or any stand of any kind in the public square.  It's simply an online vow by pastors who will no longer sign marriage licenses.

It reads, in part:

"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."

Sounds reasonable, right?  No fuss, no muss, no bitter, drawn-out legal battles.  No Constitutional amendments, no public scenes of anxious piety, and pastors can avoid the whole gay marriage mess and get back to other things.

This way, the church takes care of how the church believes marriage should be viewed, and the government takes care of the parts of marriage that deal with taxes, legal relationships, property, and census statistics.  Separation of church and state, right?  And if the government wants to do the whole equality thing, then so be it.  At least they're not dragging religion into it, and forcing ministers to violate their conscience.

Besides, this is how it's already handled in other countries, gay marriage or not, and evangelicals don't seem to have a problem.  The government does its bit of paperwork, the church does its bit of sacredness, and voilĂ , you're married! 

Of course, even though about 60 ministers have already signed the pledge, deciding to not sign a marriage certificate is something any minister could do with little fuss or fanfare, as long as they advised the couple beforehand.  Maybe some ministers already are, and simply haven't broadcast it.

Which brings up the point being raised by people who have a problem with this Marriage Pledge:  what does it resolve, besides getting conservative pastors out of the politics of marriage?  How does not signing a government-mandated marriage certificate publicly testify to one's belief that God has ordained holy matrimony to be between a man and a woman?  Period?

When I've said that evangelicals should wrest matrimony away from the state, I guess I've envisioned something a bit more public and decisive.  After all, marriage is a public commitment, expects public support, and usually benefits from public incentives, such as deferential tax codes and private property rights.  When I've advocated for the separation of marriage and state, I've kinda assumed that it would involve the government no longer calling the licenses it gives, acknowledging two peoples' marriage, as a "marriage."  It could be called a "civil union," or a "legally-binding contract recognizing the emotional relationship between these two extra-close people."

But the government shouldn't give out marriage certificates.  Seems to me, only a God-honoring minister of the Gospel should be able to do that.  After all, the government has merely joined the church's bandwagon when it comes to acknowledging that marriage and family are the most logical ways of managing a population.  If two gay people want a document from their government saying they have the right to be emotionally attached to each other, then I guess I don't have a huge problem with that.  And if the government wants to give people who've entered into such deeply emotional relationships special privileges when it comes to property ownership, then I guess it would be simply another form of taxation or business relationship.

What First Things' Marriage Pledge seeks to avoid, however, is the brutally honest dilemma that commands the gay marriage debate.  This Marriage Pledge represents a convenient "out" for our society, and neuters the whole idea that Christ's followers have the privilege here in the United States of advocating for God's design of marriage.

Granted, it certainly looks like the battles for the hearts and minds of American voters are nearing their end, with the Supreme Court increasingly siding with gay marriage advocates, and hardly anybody seriously believing a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage can win the 38 states necessary for ratification.  And personally, I don't see the tide turning, even though I mourn the loss of our society's understanding of the moral role marriage and family should play in it.

Neither, however, do I believe that this battle over the sanctity of marriage has reached an irrevocable impasse.  I even see a benefit in our dialog over marriage, since the evangelical church's misguided tolerance of divorce has played such a twisted role in undermining the whole "sanctity of marriage" notion.  We've been more flippant about marriage in the church than some gays are who seek to marry people they truly, deeply love.  Indeed, the flaw here isn't in marriage, but in the way we've been treating it.

There are many advocates for gay marriage who labor under the misapprehension that if they can force Christian ministers of the Gospel to officiate at gay weddings, then gay marriage will have become acceptable in the eyes of our whole society.  Some even want gay marriage to represent the idea that God Himself approves of it, and that we can prove it by conducting gay weddings in theologically conservative churches.

For such people, who hope for such things, the Marriage Pledge created by First Things will serve as a wake-up call, and that isn't a bad thing.  So maybe ministers can sign the pledge, or even begin to refuse endorsing civil marriage certificates, but remain committed to the advocacy of heterosexual marriage in the public square.

If this issue is too important to ignore, as signers of the Marriage Pledge likely believe it to be, than it's too important to escape.  Right?

On any number of issues, public opinion may still end up being decidedly against us evangelicals.  But "while there is still day," why settle when it comes to marriage?

Can't we do better?


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