I think marriage is the most pressing issue facing the intelligibility of Christian social ethics within the public square for my generation. So I was really intrigued by First Things’ “Marriage Pledge.” Having written for First Things and knowing several of its staffers, I can attest to the great work being done by them. No one can question the good intent of the pledge so I want to commend the signatories and First Things for their willingness to stand firm on marriage.
While there’s agreement on what marriage is, there now seems to be a disagreement about how marriage should be witnessed to. This is significant, because it has consequences for the future of our public witness. What does the pledge insist upon? In short, the pledge calls on pastors to stop acting as agents of the state when officiating marriage ceremonies. They make good reasons, but not sufficiently persuasive enough reasons for me to sign or to encourage others to do so, either. In short, I think the pledge’s effect cedes marriage to the state.
Making marriage just ecclesial is my generation’s great temptation, even if I think it’s a move based more in pragmatism than it is in sound Christian social ethics. I’m tempted to want to throw my hands up in the air and simply leave the ruckus over marriage, especially since culture’s treason on marriage has gone from zero to eighty in about four seconds. But I can’t justify that theologically…yet. A lot more has to happen before pastors should stop officiating marriages for the state. What else must happen? Perhaps forcing actual pastors and actual churches (read: not for-profit wedding vendors) to perform same-sex marriages would be one signal. But I think all Christians should have the immediate disposition to continue to demand that the state recognize the truth about marriage, and one way to do that is by the church partnering with the state in recognizing and validating true marriages.
I’ve had in the back of my mind the idea that withholding Christian marriage for the civil sphere could, and perhaps will some day in the future, function as an act of prophetic judgment. By that, I mean that the state could so contaminate marriage that it no longer remains feasible for Christians to share such a beautiful institution. Perhaps that’s what First Things thinks it is doing now, but I think their move lacks a certain completeness to it being ready as a grand strategy. We have to remember that somewhere around half the nation still thinks like we do on marriage, and so to foreclose our witness before the state now, it seems to me, is to leave half the nation stranded and looking for a voice. We can and ought to be that voice. For now, what Christians must recognize is that it is Christian marriage that offers a true witness to marriage, and that it is better. And not better because it offers higher levels of satisfaction, but because ultimately, it is true. Christianity makes truth claims. If we aren’t doing that, when we ought to close up shop. We need to keep that in mind because what’s being floated as actual marriage policy by the revisionists isn’t true.
As James Davidson Hunter notes, we mustn’t forget that debates in the public square are really debates about who has the power to name reality. I’m not prepared to let the craven mismanagers of secularism name something falsely or name something in such a way that it solidifies sin with government sanction. Same-sex marriage doesn’t exist. That may offend you, but I’m sorry, I’m obliged to tell the truth. To quote Brother Luther, “Here I stand.”
Here’s our theological axiom at play in this dispute: That marriage has been redefined in some places does not invalidate the truth of marriage. The contrived constitutional sham we’re in should drive us to do a few things and to do them better than we have in the past. We should: A) Profess that Jesus is Lord, not Uncle Caesar; B) Pray; C) Preach; D) Vote; E) Redouble our efforts to sing more loudly than before about the beautiful non-fiction of biblical marriage and the sad fiction of same-sex marriage, but not before we sing three stanzas of A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
As Jake Meador noted, the problem with this is the voluntary self-removal from the debate altogether. Actual ministers aren’t being forced (yet) to call good evil and evil good. That day may come, but let’s pray, write, and argue that it doesn’t. For now, let’s not make distinctions the Bible doesn’t make. The Bible never carves up marriages for secularists and separate marriages for the religionists. Marriage is only for men and women to participate in, and the government to recognize. This pledge may end up being our last resort, but I don’t think we’ve yet arrived to where this is our best option.