An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part 2, Marriage Officiant

Marriage as solemnized in the United States, in most cases, may disturb me more than the wrangling over marriage equality. It would be wrong to assume I believe the discussions over marriage equality should be muted as somehow unimportant.

Instead it would be accurate to read that opening sentence as recognition that once registered with the County, thus the State, every pastor adds to his or her resume, Agent of the State. And, this additional role comes without compensation for the services rendered.

Sure, most couples offer an honorarium for officiating at the wedding ceremony. But, the reality that the State gains agents free gratis, without cost, serves only a detail to the more serious consideration. In other words, couples’ secure a marriage license from the State and then locate a minister to execute the legal document.

OKmarriagelicenseOklahoma, under former Governor Keating and the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, instituted a means to encourage pre-marital counseling. If a couple seeks pre-marital counseling and receives a letter from the minister stating such, the license costs $5. Without said letter, the cost for the license is $50. Again, in a measure to ensure a better chance its social contracts last to ensure Oklahoma a more prosperous State, at least longer therefore making Oklahoma a more prosperous state, the State encourages pre-marital counseling. Few ministers I know charge for pre-marital counseling. Consider the State looking to the clergy for help both to provide the counseling and do the marrying.

But, when it comes to the dissolution of the marriage contract, really a social contract as understood in American history dating to the Massachusetts Bay Colony prior to 1776, the State does not appeal to the clergy. Effectively there is little the Church may do to help or curb the dissolution of the contract as it has no authority to do so, at least in the Protestant Tradition.

Several weeks ago I met Bobby Griffith, a Presbyterian pastor in Oklahoma City. During the ranging conversations the subject of marriage came up and I suggested it would be good if we could trace the history of marriage laws in the United States. If, goes my thinking, the history of marriage laws is more social contract than religious institution in America, it may impact the role of the Church in marriage. I will pick up on this soon.

Quickly, Bobby, who is working on his PhD at the University of Oklahoma, and whose dissertation intends to explore the relationship between racism and corporations, pointed me to one of his sources, Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North. I picked up the book and am working through it so at this point I am following the interpretation of the work laid out by Bobby. No need to view that as an abdication of responsible investigation. I did not want to delay this post until I finished the book. I minored in history and am very interested. But, with a number of other projects going, reading another 400 pages might have pushed part 2 into next year. Marriages are being scheduled for next year and I did not want to kick my can down the road any further without thinking about my role as Minister and Agent of the State.

According to Griffith, Sweet provides evidence of racism as the root of marriage laws in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans needed a way to avoid interracial marriage. Appealing to the State for certain marriage laws gave Puritan ministers a legal way to deny marriage to interracial couples be they from English settlers, Native Americans, or African New Englanders. Read that one more time. Embedding racism into marriage laws provided a means for Christian ministers to discriminate legally. There is little doubt this will surprise some readers. Others will be non-plussed considering America’s racial history.

What cannot be missed is the way Christian ministers needed the State to create laws to preserve their vision of Christian marriage, even if that meant discrimination based on the color of a person’s skin. The exchange seems to be that the State would oblige the request and the ministers became willing agents of the State. As I understood Griffith, this is the ground upon which marriage laws were built and continue to be followed. that is, the State makes the laws and the Ministers serve as Agents, including the privilege to discriminate.

Here we are several hundred years later debating who gets to marry rather than who does the marrying in allegiance to the State. Where is this debate? Folks on both sides of the marriage equality issue may bristle that we are not nailing down the who may get married. As a minister, I am uneasy as an Agent of the State. If marriage is a social contract sanctioned by State law, then what are Ministers doing administering a State contract?

Any assertion that said laws find a home in Christianity need revisit what form of Christianity would pursue laws legalizing discrimination. We experienced a Civil War and a Civil Rights Movement to work to rid ourselves of such forms of Christianity. Do we now re-hearse that form? Increasingly I am uneasy.

Divorce rates serve a regular reference for ministers who believe marriage underlies civil societies lending a perceived stabilizing force. If there is no means to affect a contract one solemnized in the face of its dissolution, it seems wasted breath. So long as we are willing Agents of the State we must simply acknowledge that we sign the licenses and the State signs the divorce decrees.

Before proposing a different way forward, I want to point out how the debate over who gets to marry has played out among certain Presbyterians and Southern Baptists. The PCUSA granted its clergy permission to perform same-sex marriages in states where same-sex marriages are legal. Southern Baptists consider ministers and churches that perform or allow same-sex marriage to have violated the bounds of confessional cooperation.

The PCUSA chooses to follow the law of the land even if it believes the rule of faith allows same-sex marriage. It is hard not to see this move stemming from an underlying commitment of its hierarchy to commend its clergy as Agents of the State.

Southern Baptists may be commended, as they are in this article, for consistency, even if many disagree with their position. If confessional boundaries mean no same-sex marriages by SBC clergy in SBC Churches, even in a non-connectional structure, then to disassociate from a minister and or congregation is at least consistent.

But, Southern Baptists, whose history illustrates a healthy influence from the Anabaptists, nowhere discuss their role as Agents of the State. If, in a Free Church Tradition, Baptists want to stand for the separation of Church and State, then why not say, “No, we will not execute your social contracts. You execute them and you dissolve them.”

Presbyterians (PCUSA) and Southern Baptists have chosen different paths when it comes to marriage equality. But, in one sense they have chosen the same course by remaining tied to the State when it comes to the issue. The PCUSA maintains its State ties by disallowing clergy to perform same-sex unions in States where it violates the law. Southern Baptists have taken not stance on executing the State’s legal contracts. Different positions on marriage equality but similar positions as Agents of the State.

When I set out to write this short series, it was the culmination of several hours worth of conversations with friends seeking to answer the question of a minister’s role in marriage contracts. One of those friends sent along several articles that seem to describe what I would likely propose and how I may personally move forward on this issue.

I will put together those links and my thoughts in Part 3.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

9 comments on “An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part 2, Marriage Officiant

  1. Chris Weber says:

    Great series, Todd. Looking forward to Part 3 …

    A pastor friend of mine has contemplated separating the legal and religious aspects of the marriages he performs by refusing to sign marriage licenses. Instead he would require couples to have their marriage licenses signed by a Judge, Justice of the Peace, or other legally recognized wedding officiant. Then he would perform a religious wedding ceremony that would exclude the portion of the pronouncement that refers to the “power vested in me by the State of …” He might also consider performing solely religious wedding ceremonies regardless of whether or not the couple had a signed licensed already and maybe even if they did not intend to ever seek such a license.

    So far he has not, as far as I know, done this. Not only would doing so risk the wrath of his denomination’s hierarchy but possibly that of many of the people he pastors. One also wonders what the implications might be with respect to the “payment” he receives as an agent of the state which comes in the form of the “housing allowance” he can claim each year to substantially reduce his taxes.

    1. Good thoughts Chris.

      As to the implications related to a “housing allowance.” One may attempt to argue the housing allowance is somehow payment to the agent of the State, but I have not seen that connection made before. Worth considering.

      And, at some point I suspect that benefit will go away. The reality will then have to also be that clergy cannot be double taxed as both employed and self-employed, the current system in place.

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