An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part 3 – Pastor as Prophet

“You can’t be Christian and support torture,” writes Brian Zhand. And, you can’t pastor if unwilling to be prophetic. Despite the continued effort to make chaplains of pastors, there comes a time when one must wake from slumber.

Yes, I am more and more convinced the way forward is for pastors to wake from the slumber associated with an uncritical eye toward the State and its free use of our services. Many of my co-religionists have thought about the matter of marriage and the State. A good many disagree with me still holding out hope that continued engagement will somehow have an effect upon a State that retains the right to absolve a contract most often solemnized by a minister. I no longer see this as possible.

IMG_2841The delay of Part 3 came as I waited for the definitive word on the subject. I admittedly attempted to get this post read by those in my Tribe, the SBC. Tweeting at Dr. Russ Moore and Dr. Ed Stetzer resulted in one reply. Dr. Moore did not reply. Dr. Stetzer, however, did.

Stetzer referred to a piece by Bob Smietana who reported on a recent research project of Lifeway Research. According to the report,

Seven [pastors] in 10 (71 percent) disagree with the statement, “Clergy should no longer be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage.” About a quarter (24 percent) agree.

Clergy in the South (19 percent) were least likely to agree followed by those in the Northwest (24 percent), Midwest (28 percent), and West (29 percent).

Americans hold a different position,

Americans show less support for clergy performing civil marriages. About a third (36 percent) agree with the statement, “Clergy should no longer be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage.” Half (53 percent) disagree, while one in 10 (11 percent) are not sure.

The majority of Americans and pastors believe clergy should be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage. I would like to hear/read the arguments. Especially those that do not default to an appeal to “Christian Nation” or Tradition. Each of these present their own ideological pitfalls that run the gamut from naiveté to romanticism regarding Nation-States, particularly America.

First, do not conflate the issue of marriage, what it is and who may be, with the issue of pastor as State Agent/Actor.

How one defines marriage and who may be married is not predicated on the role of the clergy. How clergy relate to the State is deeper than a debate over marriage. At some point the two matters converge but they should not be construed as two sides of the same coin.

Dr. Moore may not see the two issues as the same, but when he argues Churches, and so Clergy, not abandon their role as a place, or role, where, or by, marriages are solemnized it plays to the idea these matters are inexorably linked. He wrote for First Things,

With the legal affirmation of same-sex marriage in some states, should churches, synagogues, and mosques stop performing civil marriages? No, not yet. Marriage is, of course, more than a matter of statecraft.

Parse this opening of the article. Dr. Moore locates marriage in the civil sphere when he refers to the relationship often solemnized by clergy as civil marriage. It is hard to take the rest of the piece when the language game obtains to a discourse in the civil sphere.  That does not mean Moore is playing games but rather a reference to a particular language set used in a given discourse.

Where would we be had we taken seriously the reality that marriage as practiced is indeed a civil union? The purview of the State would be clearer and the role of the Christian community would be evident. States may set the guidelines for the legalities related to civil unions, but the State does not possess the apparatus, outside the don’ts of the law, to influence character within those unions.


Second, recognize the nature of marriage laws as distinct from religious covenant. We do not live in a theocracy.

If, for Christians, marriage is indeed covenant over contract, then how might we better engage the conversation? Not as State Agents/Actors.

Marriage may be more than statecraft, but it is not less than statecraft. As such the State does have a role in marriage, one the Church in Colonial America sought to influence, if not control. Sadly that was to uphold a desire to avert interracial marriages. (See Part 2)

Today the Church finds its influence waning or the State increasingly secularized. Either way, the laws of the State long agreed to by the Church enter a new era and the Church finds itself without the power to make or change the laws.

The situation forces the Church to wrestle with itself.

Once, when the relationship was more cozy, the Church seemed fine with the State describing marriage as a legal contract, even if for the Church it obtained to a sacred covenant. No one ever saw the possibility the State may not always agree with the Church? We now have a battle for the meaning of the word marriage. But, when marriage is admitted to be a civil union, it may illustrate that talk of covenant over against contract has not captured the imagination of clergy, or even, those entering marriage.

Rather than utilizing an air of superiority over the State, why not recognize the limitations of the State. Maybe it would come in admitting the limitations of the Church. We do not live in a theocracy. We must then learn how we might plot goodness for marriage, for unions? If the Church cannot write and pass laws that govern civil unions, then why not give the energy given to resistance to cultivating goodness and peace for people? Why not work to create an atmosphere where the fruits of the Spirit demonstrate the kind of relationships that flourish?

How might we practice what covenant relationships look like over against the reigning ethos where membership has its privileges? Covenant relationships are not limited to marriage. That is, friendship is not a contract. If the church spent more time cultivating healthy places for disagreement and doubt, for resolution and reconciliation, for investment and hospitality, would that help?

To be continued . . .

Third, let the State take care of the contractual laws. Allow Christians, or other religious groups, to choose marriage as covenant within a given community.

Finally, force the Church to wrestle with how the dissolution of the contract affects their relationships of grace and mercy when the covenant falls apart.

Posts in This Series

An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part, Prayer As Ceremony

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

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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.

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