An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part 3, Pastor as Prophet (Continued)

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. (from last post.)

Third, let the State take care of the contractual laws related to civil unions. Allow Christians, or other religious groups, to choose marriage as covenant within a given community. By community it is meant a voluntary religious community – Church for example.

If we agree, “the State does not possess the apparatus, outside the don’ts of the law, to influence character within those unions,” it would seem the role of religious communities might be what becomes evident. Let me acknowledge at the outset the plurality of visions associated with gender roles in marriage. Rather than derail the aim of this series with an excursus on that issue, my intent is to characterize the role a Christian community, the religious community of my context, may play to help participants in that community to develop what the Bible refers to as the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

One would be hard pressed to argue against these traits as important to a flourishing marriage. As such, the church, or religious community committed to develop these traits becomes an obvious asset to the State. The State cannot mandate these traits but it might welcome the religious communities who share these sorts of human values as an ally rather than an adversary. What shape might this take in a formal sense?

My first introduction to a culture where marriage is a two sphere relationship was during a recent trip to Guatemala. After working with local pastors I learned couples are married, first, by an agent of the State and then are married in their local church. A number of conversations with friends and those living abroad reveal this is more common outside the United States than most of us realize.

The Church would expect the couple to be married by the State before a ceremony in the Church. How the State executes these civil contracts could include any number of employees of the State or include it as an agreement lawyers may oversee. That is really a matter for the State to work out.

Marriage ceremonies, in a person’s preferred religious setting, would then set out the expectations beyond the legal bits related to owning property, signing legal contracts, and borrowing money. After all, it is not just about operating within the law that makes a marriage fruitful and life-giving.

One objection may be from those who prefer a universal definition for marriage. I understand that objection. It simply seems that in a structure where the State sets the legal parameters for civil unions, it should then be up to the particular local congregation, or other label for different religious contexts, as to what unions it will consider acceptable marriages within its fellowship. Not every person wanting to marry will desire a religious ceremony or to be part of a religious community. Those who prefer to participate in a faith community should have little trouble finding one that fits their values and sensibilities within their faith tradition.

In the end, the arrangement removes clergy from the realm of the State as Agent/Actor.

Your additions or corrections?

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.

The State already has provision for what happens when marriages end. Each State has its peculiar laws governing the matter. However, the Church would need to wrestle with what happens when a civil marriage, followed by a Christian ceremony, or other religious ceremony, comes to an end. How does the Church respond to those moments when couples within its particular community face the dissolution of their civil marriage?

No one hopes any relationship dissolves for any reason, especially marriage. When they do it seems the Church would then need to respond with grief and grace.

For too long we have projected an image of perfection in Christian relationships that leave people scarred by shame. And, then you add marriage to the mix and most often what is already a terribly difficult and complex situation is worsened by the pious among us.

Few Christians I know will admit to the beauty of divorce. And, that is before wrestling with the implications within a given faith community.

I am still working with what this might look like. One thing I know, we must do better with grace and mercy in all things human, including marriage and those times when it comes to an end.

Pastor as Prophet

Pastor as Agent of the State forfeits his or her role as prophet both to the State and the Church. Both institutions need voices willing to locate at the edge to call to the seat/center of power a new world is possible.

Here I would simply note one observation Walter Brueggemann makes regarding the role of the prophet in the Sacred Text.* Living among a group of people where certain relational ideals become secondary to selfish and greedy behavior that harms the community, the prophet challenged civil, religious, and social structures, and the people who participate in them, to reconsider or face the consequences of their own abuses of power.

Exile would come.

Voices that participate in the system that harms the community and individuals forfeits the right to offer any challenge to the world as it is for its safety is in the world remaining as it is. Our world needs voices that will point to the new world coming.


“If you are a pastor, how are your thoughts about being a state agent in marriage changing, if indeed they are? If you are not a pastor, what are your thoughts about separate civil and religious marriage ceremonies in light of how our culture is changing in its view of what constitutes a legitimate marriage?”

*One place Brueggemann describes this role is in Reality, Grief, Hope.

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.

6 comments on “An Uneasy Agent of the State: Part 3, Pastor as Prophet (Continued)

  1. martyduren says:

    I’m very close to removing myself as a state agent in marriages. As culture and court rulings become more affirming of gay marriage pastors may find themselves left out to dry by a government that makes no distinction between heterosexual marriage or homosexual marriage. The same government that vests in me the power to pronounce a couple man and wife, may require me to use that power to pronounce relationship status on a gay couple. Or, it may choose to fine me for not doing so.

    I don’t see how the current and ongoing disputes between gay couples and bakers, photographers, and facilities rental places–all of which seem to be losing cases in spite of religious underpinnings–will not eventually affect pastors. I may be wrong, but separating the civil and religious ceremonies now seems to be a way to get ahead of the curve…for once.

    1. Marty,
      The issue extends beyond a conversation about marriage, as I see it. If it is true that marriage laws in the Colonies were driven by Puritan desire to outlaw interracial marriages, which is institutionalized racism, then the matter runs to protection of ideologies that may not comport with the vision of Jesus. That we have waited this long to consider the long implications may undermine the idea anyone is ahead of the curve. And, it indicates there have been many issues along the way that should have been impetus for a reconsideration of the alliance between Pastors (Church) and State.

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