September 14, 2015 / Praxis
Pain and trauma can lead us beyond the limits of our conceptual frameworks to new ways of connecting with God and others.
On June 19, 2014, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to allow their pastors to perform “same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.” As expected, this has caused no small hubbub among American Christians. While gay rights advocates and Christians on the left have lauded this progressive decision and praised the denomination for changing its official policy on marriage, conservatives vociferously oppose the change and some have even threatened financial boycotts and departure from the denomination. Deafened by debate over the theological legitimacy of same-sex marriage, no one seems to have noticed the insidious elements present in the specific wording of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resolution: “where such marriages are legal.”
By permitting clergy to officiate these ceremonies only in states where same-sex marriage is legal, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), herein referred to as PC (USA), commits two critical mistakes: first, it allows state policy to determine church theology and practice, and second, it perpetuates the problematic conflation of civil and church marriage in America. The circumscription of church practice and theology within state law is a dangerous self-imposed restriction, one that ought to be condemned by everyone on the left and the right. In order to be a faithful church, both those who endorse gay-marriage and those who condemn it must recognize these false presuppositions underlying the PC (USA)’s resolution.
Law and Theology
To put it plainly, the PC (USA) has confused the rules of men for the rule of God. Its resolution allows pastors “the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform” as long as it is “permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction.” But in order to be faithful to Christ, the church must do what the Holy Spirit calls it to do, regardless of state law. The church’s calling is not bound by state borders.
To be Christian means to profess as the apostles did before the Sanhedrin: “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV). Because we acknowledge that no one can serve two masters (Luke 16:13), our full allegiance must be to the God revealed in Scripture. The early church accepted this and was willing to obey God despite knowing they would be flogged for breaking the decrees of the local authorities. It is the command of Christ, and not the Sanhedrin, that has ultimate authority in the life of the faithful. The church today would do well to remember this. Relegating church practice to state policies—policies that are shaped by political motives and bureaucratic self-preservation, not concern for the kingdom of God—rejects the authority of Christ and places spiritual discernment in the hands of the state.
Some readers may balk at this argument, questioning how seriously we have taken the scriptural imperative to submit to the governing authorities as laid out in Romans 13. But submission to the governing authorities in that passage means paying “taxes to whom taxes are due” and giving “respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). Submission does not mean that Christians bend their theology to comport with secular ideologies. Before Paul commands the church to submit in chapter 13, he commands the church to “hold fast to what is good” (12:9). Even in submission, then, Christians cannot abandon truth, justice, hospitality to the outcast, or charity.
Although the church is responsible to the state as a divinely appointed institution (13:1), the church is nonetheless truly the church when it speaks prophetically, unencumbered by the strictures of the state, as a voice crying out in the wilderness against the false gospels and half-truths offered up by the world. The church’s responsibility to the state, as the theologian Karl Barth said, sometimes requires protest and prophetic witness against the worldly powers. The church can never allow the state to determine its identity and purpose; it can never be secularized by the law of the state “and its definitions.” According to the proclamation of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazi state’s encroachment upon church matters, “The church must remain the church,” a community ruled by Christ over, and possibly against, any earthly law. Referencing Nazism may risk sensationalism, but the Confessing Church’s proclamation remains a necessary word for the church today, a word that we fear is missing in the PC (USA)’s resolution.
There is then a strange lesson for the PC (USA) to learn from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC has taken a public moral stance that they support theologically and scripturally, regardless of state law: they will sever fellowship with any congregations that support same-sex marriage. With this, the SBC has actually understood something important about the relationship of church and state that the PC (USA) has overlooked. The Baptists know that whatever God condemns, God’s people must also condemn. And whatever God approves, so must God’s people, regardless of state legislation. Likewise, when considering gay marriage, PC (USA) congregations should do as they prayerfully believe the Holy Spirit is calling them, not as their local governments may dictate.
There are no limits to the life of faith. Some may be called to eat locusts and honey in the desert; others may be called to sacrifice their only child on Mount Moriah; and still others may be called to work from nine to five in office cubicles. The common thread among the faithful is a simple obedience to the will of God. For Christians, the making of a marriage is an extremely potent act—not a thing to be taken lightly or left to the whims of a secular state. It is God who joins two together as one in holy matrimony: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). The state has no power over marriage other than that which God has given it.
At a wedding one of us recently attended, many guests were distraught because the person performing the ceremony was not licensed by the state. “Is this even a real wedding if it isn’t recognized by the government?” they asked. This is a fairly common phenomenon—to privilege the government’s part in a marriage over the church’s—and it is telling: Christians confuse the authority of the government for the authority of God in a murky mingling of church and state. It seemed to the wedding guests that the state had sole authority to define marriage—and by implication, reality itself.
Although the instinct prompting this response may be of pure motivation (perhaps, say, deference to the government as instructed in Romans 13), it is nonetheless misguided. The church is the witness to God’s goodness, and it should never be restricted by state law. It is the church that claims to have the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the church that must prove this claim to an unbelieving world by living faithfully in the light of the life of Christ. By living according to a theology determined by the world, the church only proves that it serves a lord other than God.
Civil and Church Marriage
More than seven decades ago, C. S. Lewis penned the following words:
There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.
Lewis called for a distinction between church and state marriage because when the church marries a couple it means something quite different by this than what the state and secular world mean.
By combining civil requirements and the vows of holy matrimony into one ceremony and conscripting pastors to act as agents of the state in signing marriage licenses, we have failed to remember that civil marriage is only a legal contract conferring certain civil benefits upon a citizen couple; church marriage is a binding commitment of two Christians before the church community and God. The good of civil marriage rests on sociological and economic principles, whereas the good of Christian marriage rests in the hope of sanctification: that these two individuals will serve God better together than alone. These two types of marriage, while often overlapping, are not the same. They entail different requirements and pursue different ends. We believe that the PC (USA)’s decision illustrates their failure to understand these distinctions.
One of us, as an ordained minister, attempts to demonstrate the difference between the two types of marriage by refusing to sign marriage licenses; to gain legal status, wedding couples must obtain the legal signature from a local courthouse on their own. This practice has been met with mixed reactions, from retorts of inconvenience to a lively story of one couple making it official before a rowdy crowd of bootleggers in a small-town Appalachian courthouse. Still, the inconvenience is worth the theological gain. When the church conflates state and religious practices, we gradually lose the significance of marriage as a godly act as well as the chance to witness to the world about the true character of Christian marriage.
The Church’s Witness
The church, the body of Christ’s disciples, is set apart by God. 1 Peter claims, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9). This is not a piety that lives in caves, shunning the world. This piety is a light to the world, a city on a hill that calls the world living in darkness to worship God in spirit and in truth. Because the light is found in the witness of the church, the church cannot compromise with the world; it cannot afford to confuse its mission with that of the world. Although the church is responsible to the state, the role of the church and the role of the state—even regarding marriage—are not the same. In its mission the church is bound to both support and criticize the state, but also, as Barth writes, the church has a responsibility to “set an example so that by its very existence it may be a source of renewal for the State.” It achieves this task by maintaining its own distinct realm as church, ruled by another king. For the church to faithfully witness to the state, it must cultivate a degree of independence from the state. The church must maintain the integrity of its own politics and practice without giving these over to the policies of the state.
The SBC does this, prohibiting its clergy from officiating same-sex marriages, even in states that legally permit it. If other, more liberal denominations like the PC (USA) were to follow in the spirit of this example, they would permit clergy to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies even in states that do not legally recognize gay marriage. Although same-sex couples would not receive the legal benefits of a civil marriage, having “only” been married in the church, we believe that God calls the church to live out its theological convictions even, and perhaps especially, when they clash with the powers and principalities of the world. The church must not forget that her primary task is always and everywhere the same as that charge levied against the early disciples—through its faithful witness to the coming kingdom—to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).
 Jerry L. van Marter, “Assembly Approves Allowing Pastors to Perform Same-Gender Marriage Where Legal,” General Assembly News, Presbyterian Church of the USA, June 19, 2014, http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/6/19/assembly-approves-allowing-pastors-perform-same-ge/.
 We struggled with the phrase “rules of men,” discontent with the dehumanization of women validated by gender-exclusive language but unwilling to white-wash the simple truth that women in the United States do not have anything approximating equal representation in the making of policies and laws.
 “Authoritative Interpretation of W-4.9000 Adopted by the 221st General Assembly,” Presbyterian Church (USA), 2014, http://oga.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/ao-breakout-marriage.pdf.
 Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, trans. G.W. Bromiley, et al. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), 689.
 As quoted in Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2010), 127.
 Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 112.
 Barth, Community, State, and Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004).
John Schweiker Shelton
John Schweiker Shelton is a current master’s student at Duke Divinity School with interests in New Testament, culture, and theological politics.
Kristopher Norris is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia in Christian theology and ethics. He is a lecturer in public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and the author of two books, Pilgrim Practices: Discipleship for a Missional Church and Kingdom Politics: How Politics Can Solve What’s Wrong with Our Churches (co-authored with Sam Speers, forthcoming in 2015).