Civil Marriage/Christian Marriage

holy matrimonyI was reminded again the other night, that many pastors and elders don’t really know the implications for the church if marriage equality becomes law in our state.  There are fears that pastors and congregations would be forced to perform weddings that they believe are inherently sinful.  There are a few things that I think need to be clear 1) civil marriage and Christian marriage are not the same thing and 2) a pastor always has the spiritual responsibility to refuse to perform a wedding she/he believes to be “unwise.”

My daughter has been challenging me quite a bit lately as we plan her wedding.  She is a Facebook-announced atheist who wants a meaningful, non-religious ceremony.  I am NOT officiating … that detail was decided decades ago after doing one too many funerals for our family … I will “just” be the mother of the bride (believe me, that’s enough!).  Being involved in the planning of a “non-religious” wedding has been a reminder of the difference between secular weddings and  Christian weddings.  The Directory for Worship clearly makes the distinction:

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. [W-4.9001]

Marriage is one of those places where Church and State meet in our nation.  And for many the line is blurred.  Some pastors have refused to be an “agent of the state” and have refused to do weddings at all.  I, admit, I’ve always had a cringe in my gut when I signed marriage licenses, but I have loved being a part of meaningful and sacred ceremonies for many couples.  But, the truth is, we are separate.  The State cannot force the Church to recognize or perform weddings that the church views as unfaithful or unwise.  In the same manner, I want to remind our legislatures that it’s not the state’s responsibility to determine whether a law is “godly” or faithful to Christian tradition.  It’s the Church’s responsibility to guard the sacredness of marriage and to interpret it’s covenantal character.

In my first and second calls, the other pastors on staff and I performed weddings almost every weekend.  Both congregations understood weddings to be an evangelism tool and a service to the community.  Most of the time they were a witness of grace and a recognition of the power of Christ and Christian community in a marriage.  And, to be fair, sometimes they were difficult.  One couple wanted to use a song in the wedding that I deemed appropriate for the reception, but not a service of worship … the groom to be was so angry and said, “I’m paying you, you have to do what we want.”  Nope.  The church is not in the wedding business, and the pastor is not for hire!  We are responsible for the faith, discipleship and the spiritual well-being of those whom we serve.  And that means we can always say, “No”.

The same will be true if the state decides to recognize same sex marriages.  It means that men and women who are gay or lesbian will be afforded the same legal and societal rights as partners in traditional heterosexual marriages.  It means that those whom they acknowledge are their closest family members will be treated by the law as next of kin.  It does NOT mean that Presbyterian congregations will be forced to have gay weddings in their buildings or pastors will be forced to officiate.  Even the question of whether a Presbyterian pastor will be permitted to perform a same-sex marriage, is still in question in our denomination.

If the teaching elder is convinced after discussion with the couple that commitment, responsibility, maturity, or Christian understanding are so lacking that the marriage is unwise, the teaching elder shall assure the couple of the church’s continuing concern for them and not conduct the ceremony. In making this decision the teaching elder may seek the counsel of the session. [W-4.9002b]

As a church, we will be grappling with this issue for years, if not decades, to come, regardless of whether or not the supreme courts rules in favor of marriage equality or not.  We will be dealing with the scriptural issues, with the issues of faith, and God’s intentions for us … we will be grappling with how to serve a changing complexity of what it means to be family.  And I pray we can do that with integrity, with respect, with compassion, and with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”

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