04 June 2009

Should Pastors Withdraw From the State?

The latest legislative battle over so-called "gay marriage" included debate over exemptions based on religion.

In other words, the legislature of one of the fifty states actually had a debate over whether or not churches ought to be compelled to bless and recognize homosexual mimicry of marriage. And even though those who sought an exemption for churches won out (this time), the fact that it is a matter of deliberation is itself an ominous development. But it is hardly surprising.

We saw much of the same scenario played out in 20th century Sweden, where the secular state, by virtue of a church-state nexus, used anti-discrimination laws to force women's "ordination" upon the Church of Sweden over the initial objection of the bishops. This radicalized campaign by secularists and non-believers wishing to control and bully the Bride of Christ - to drive her away from Scripture and from the enfleshed Word of God - has been a rousing "success." In 1998, the Church of Sweden allowed our Lord Jesus and His apostles to be depicted in the form of homosexual pornography in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Uppsala. In 2009, the bureaucrats of the Church of Sweden are now celebrating their first openly-lesbian "bishop."

The church-state nexus is an increasingly dangerous intersection for pastors and congregations to find themselves. In the United States, our society and government are moving beyond mere secularism to outright hostility to the Christian faith. Insofar as we stand in the middle of the road between church and state, we are going to see increasing pressure to place allegiance to the flag over the cross and to elevate tolerance over and above orthodoxy.

One obvious intersection between the Two Kingdoms where we find Lutheran pastors is the military chaplaincy. The uniformed chaplain is under two specific orders - to the military establishment and to the Kingdom of God. And as long as these two worlds do not collide, this is not a problem. But as the state slips into a paradigm of anti-Christianity, there will be increasing clashes - especially when the paradigmatic shift is gradual. Like the proverbial frog in the pan of water on the stove, our church body will some day suddenly find itself at the boiling point with no exit strategy.

We're already seeing problems with this dual allegiance in our system of military chaplaincy. Military chaplains were recently ordered to destroy Bibles and to refrain from evangelism. There are reports of military chaplains being pressured to avoid references to Jesus and the Trinity. Military chaplains are required to assist in providing spiritual guidance to to those of all religions (at very least by finding chaplains to accommodate all religious beliefs). There is a good bit of pressure to allow Pagan chaplains to serve in the chaplaincy corps (and why should an American soldier not be permitted access to the religious practice of his choice?). As society itself becomes more religiously diverse, an LCMS chaplain may find himself under the command of an Episcopalian priestess, a Unitarian pastorette, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, or perhaps even in the near future, a Wiccan clergyperson or Satanic minister.

Perhaps a better way to provide military personnel with spiritual care while avoiding this increasingly problematic nexus might be to have civilian chaplains (as they do in the Wisconsin Synod). Civilian chaplains do not have to navigate dual loyalties in a divided organizational chart, are not under orders to those of other religious traditions, and are not beholden to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There is simply less pressure that can be exerted by the military upon a civilian chaplain to water down his religious confession. Of course, my critique of the military chaplaincy system is in no way a slight to our chaplain corps - pastors who risk life and limb to bring the Word of God and the holy sacraments to military personnel. Rather, I think the system we are placing them into is increasingly problematic. I think it would be foolhardy to conclude that the religious freedom of our chaplains will continue as our culture becomes increasingly intolerant of "intolerant" Christians making exclusive claims about Jesus.

But there is a more common intersection between church and state - one that every parish pastor experiences when he conducts the rite of holy matrimony.

In the United States, ordained ministers are also officers of the state. They have the legal authority to solemnize the marriage contract in the name of the state. And acting in that capacity, the state has some degree of control over the minister who performs state-recognized weddings. This is why the secular issue of the changing definition of marriage is now bleeding over into legislative debate regarding how this impacts churches.

This intersection is an increasingly dangerous place for the church to stand - and a place she doesn't need to be at all. In much of the world (ironically even in places with a strong tradition of blurred lines between church and state), it is common to have two separate wedding ceremonies - one to satisfy the state (which may be nothing more than signing papers), and another as a rite of the church. In this scenario, the church does not tell the state how to regulate the secular institution of marriage, but more importantly, the state has no finger in the church's pie when it comes to Holy Matrimony.

I believe we ought to consider removing ourselves from the state part of weddings. This would mean not filling out paperwork with the state in the course of our conduct of wedding ceremonies in our churches. This would mean that if husbands and wives who are married by a pastor in a church rite wish government recognition of their union (as they probably should), they need to seek that state recognition out apart from the church wedding (be it a ceremony before a judge or justice of the peace, or simply getting a marriage license and signing the paperwork at the courthouse).

This would break the church-state nexus - and would give the state no pretense for telling the church whom to marry any more than it would be in a position of dictating to the church whom to baptize, commune, or ordain. As long as we maintain this cozy church-state relationship, we run the risk of the state meddling in the affairs of the church. In the near future, we may find Christian Churches under pressure - perhaps by threatening to remove tax-exempt statuses, the use of civil litigation, or even the levying of criminal charges - to perform and recognize homosexual "marriages", (or with the ascendancy of Islam), polygamy, or any number of future expansions of the state's definition of marriage in any number of ways that we can't even imagine at this time.

Christian marriage is a solemn and holy rite that recognizes what God has joined together: one man and one woman. It is an estate established by God from the time of the Garden of Eden. Christian matrimony is none of the state's business. But so long as we pastors wish to be recognized as ministers of the state, we run the risk of exposing our churches to penalties when we do not comply.

I believe we need to break ties with the state while it is a simple matter of no longer being involved in state weddings. We need to make a move now, before the water is too hot for us to be able to easily jump out of the pan.

--- Rev. Larry Beane


Pr. H. R. said...

I'm working on a paper (early stages) on just this for one of the upcoming symposia. The culprit in our midst appears to be Koehler (read his chapter on marriage) and a Graebner article (which Koehler cites several times) from CTM which I've yet to read.

It all goes back to the Lutheran Church being coopted by the State in 16th century Germany. We should finally grow into our confession here in America and be done with this.

Very challenging questions you pose in regard to the chaplaincy. . . I think you're right: the Wisconsin brethren have had the better argument in this all along.


revalkorn said...

Excellent post. I'm not certified to do weddings anywhere right now, and I've been giving serious consideration to not seeking certification when I do get a Call again. I'll recognize marriages in a church ceremony, but I don't think I'll be the state's representative anymore.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Al:

Before I did my first wedding, I checked with the Jeff Parish court house, and they said that in LA (at least in Jefferson) I did not have to register anywhere - but simply needed to be an "ordained minister" and to return the signed paperwork to the state. I wanted to be sure, so I checked with a Louisiana judge, who said the same thing.

I think some states make you actually register before officiating at a wedding, but I don't think our state is one of them.

When I officiated at my in-laws' wedding in Canada, I had to have an LCC pastor certify to the province that I was a minister in fellowship with the LCC (which is recognized by Ontario) in order for the province to recognize the marriage.

It would be a lot easier just to distinguish the kingdoms better, and if people want their sacramental estate to have government recognition, let them handle that on their own.

WM Cwirla said...

Historically, Lutherans have been far too cozy with the state, beginning with Luther's use of the Christian prince as Notbischof and culminating with the disastrous state churches of Europe.

I would gladly surrender my deputy badge.

Pr. David Gallas said...

This would mean that if husbands and wives who are married by a pastor in a church rite wish government recognition of their union (as they probably should), they need to seek that state recognition out apart from the church wedding (be it a ceremony before a judge or justice of the peace, or simply getting a marriage license and signing the paperwork at the courthouse).

Great topic! I agree with much of what you've written, but I have a question for clarification's sake. Related to the above scenario, let's say that a man and a woman refuse to go to the state, and only go to the church for their marriage rite. Would they be truly married in God's eyes?

Isn't marriage ruled by God in the temporal order through civil authority? Shouldn't it be REQUIRED that such a couple receive state recognition first? Thus, we wouldn't merely 'wish' they get state recognition, but require it. Thoughts?

WM Cwirla said...

The reverse question is also needed: If a couple is legally married by the state, would they also then be required to solemnize their marriage in church in order for the church to recognize them as married?

This would be similar to the Roman Catholic view of marriage as "sacrament." Up until this point, Lutherans have held that the church adds nothing to the essence of the marriage covenant.

revalkorn said...

Cwirla--We don't require that now for Justice of the Peace weddings, and I don't see why we'd require it in the future. I believe we'd certainly offer the option of doing so, but making a requirement of it would be evil.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear David:

Thanks for the excellent question. I think this is just the kind of discussion we need to have sooner rather than later.

I do think much of our Lutheran approach to things like church/state relations is colored by the social, cultural, and political situation in 16th century Europe. But in 21st century America, we are no longer governed by Christian princes and nobles, and we Christians are looking to become a minority in our own country before long. This, combined with our overly-democratized (in my opinion) approach to republican government and the government's deviations from constitutional boundaries makes things potentially really precarious for our grandchildren, if not our children.

I think it sets a terrible precedent to seek state permission before officiating at any rite of the church - especially when the state (unlike, say in Luther's day) is at best agnostic, and at worst, anti-Christian). Even after disestablishment, the Swedes still have elected politicians (many openly atheist) dictating policy to the churches, as they sit on church councils by virtue of their positions with the state.

This is why even the leftist bishops of the Church of Sweden are seeking just what I'm proposing - a complete severance between church and state in matters of marriage (as the current government may well compel churches to "marry" homosexuals by force of law).

At some point in the future here in America, the state might impose some unchristian element into its definition of marriage (as we're beginning to see) and I don't think we ought to automatically submit to the state before proceeding with a churchly marriage.

For example, what if a future incarnation of secular marriage was not a lifelong vow, but rather a five-year renewable contract (I have heard this concept bandied about). Should we require couples get a "license" from the state that imposes this understanding on them before we bless them as a church? Obviously, not.

I think it is fitting and proper (for now) to have one's marriage recognized by the state - especially due to the legal ramifications. But, we don't take our marching orders from the government. Ultimately, I don't think marriage derives its legitimacy from the state. I argue that it goes the other way - the state's authority is one of *recognition of*, not of *granting* authority.

If a Muslim government were, for example, to outlaw marriage between two Christians (saying that at least one party to the marriage had to be a Muslim), I don't think the churches should just shrug and tell Christians that the church is helpless to bless their marriages (which are, after all, done by God and carried out by the couple themselves - the pastor's job is essentially to bless their union and recognize it publicly on behalf of the church).

I know these are hypothetical situations, and certainly don't reflect reality in the current climate. But things in the culture tend to change gears very quickly - especially during periods of decline and demographic shift.

I think we really need to sort out what we owe the state before we return to pre-Constantinian Christianity (potentially as a minority religion in an officially Muslim or Atheist state) rather than wait until it happens.

Thanks for the question, and I hope we get some good discussion from it!

FB, SSP said...

Thank you for this discussion.
Father Beane, I would call the period we are entering Post-Constantinian rather than a return to a Pre-Constantinian era. We will be encountering many challenges in the future that we did not face when we were under the old Roman Empire. I predict that the new Empire will be far more cruel and murderous.

One issue that concerns me is whether Christians will be forced to call these abominations "marriages", thus forcing us to commit sin by lying - to call a thing that which it absolutely is not, under penalty of criminal prosecution? What would be the instruction you would give to a parishioner in that situation? Would civil disobedience be in order?

In Christ,
Floyd Bass SSP
ELS Layman

Pr. H. R. said...

To Pastor Cwirla's last question:

Lutherans have held, within the mainstream of Western Christianity, that the mutual consent of the parties make the marriage. In some cases, this includes the consent of the parents - for minors.

Rome essentially says that her congregants are minors in this regard, and thus no mere judge or Protestant minister can validly marry them: they must have the OK of the Church to validly contract marriage, like a minor must have the consent of a parent. Rome happily acknowledges the marriages of atheists or two Lutherans as valid: just not a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran who exchange consent in front of a Lutheran minister.

Strange but true.


WM Cwirla said...

"Rome happily acknowledges the marriages of atheists or two Lutherans as valid: just not a Roman Catholic and a Lutheran who exchange consent in front of a Lutheran minister. "

Ah yes, the old paternalism of holy mother Church. I'm still not clear on this point, however. Currently, we do not consider people "married" who do not hold a valid marriage certificate from the state. If we split from the state in marriage matters, as the original post proposes, what is the marital status as far as the church (presume Lutheran) is concerned:

1. a couple (presume man and woman) who holds a legal marriage certificate from the state but has no church wedding

2. a couple who has a church wedding but no legal marriage certificate from the state

3. a couple who exchanges vows in the presence of their parents with neither a legal marriage certificate nor a church wedding.

At the moment, we say, "No legal marriage certificate from the state, no marriage." Would we still say the same thing under the proposal of the original post? It seems as though the original post leaves open the possibility of a church marriage without a state marriage, and therefore also a state marriage without a church marriage.

Pr. H. R. said...

Pr. Cwirla,

Right - what you've outlined is the current, pro-State take on marriage as per Koehler.

What he says is this: a valid marriage is contracted by the public mutual consent of parties who are capable of making that consent...BUT since we are to be "subject to every human creature" we should go by the rules of the State - even if they outlaw a form of marriage that God's Word allows (marriage between first cousins) - but, says Koehler, we can't recognize as valid a marriage where they allow something God forbids (marriage between a brother and sister).

This is tortured logic at best. The State gets to trump God's Word in one case, but not the other.

If Pr. Beane's advice were taken and we simply said, "Thanks but no thanks" to the State, the Church would rightly recognize all three of your situations as valid marriages - though, for the sake of good order, the Church would, I'm sure, encourage a certain uniformity of public ceremony thus making your example 3 perhaps schismatic - but still valid in God's eyes.

Here's where the rubber really hits the road: how many of you pastors have struggled with people who refuse to marry because if they do, under the laws of the State they might lose a pension? What would happen if we opted out of the State altogether and then people exchanged their vows in the Church but refused to fill out a State license? Married in God's eyes, but not the State's. . . thus avoiding the pension hangup?

Besides valid questions of the intent in the heart of such a couple, the State wouldn't let it stand long. The State would soon pass a law requiring that folks disclose whether or not they had "taken vows in a religious ceremony" or something to that effect.

And this is, I think, going to be the thrust of my paper. If we want the Church to be free on these matters, then the State needs to get out of the marriage business altogether. That's not likely to happen, of course - because 1) the State and it's minions (divorce attorneys & judges) make a fortune on State sponsored marriage - but I'm beginning to wonder if it's not the proper desideratum of the Church to have the State simply out of this business. Maybe Christians will wake up to this, as Pr. Beane surmises, when they finally, fully, and inevitably lose the gay state-marriage battle.


WM Cwirla said...

A lot of this "pro-state" position is due to the Lutheran derivation of state authority from parental authority under the 4th commandment. I wonder if this needs to be revisited as well.

Father Hollywood said...

The Roman Catholic Church in China has "illegal" ordinations that are not given any legitimacy by the state. They are conducted in secret, and these men serve as priests and bishops "in pectore" - a secretive arrangement that cuts the state (which claims authority over the church in this matter) out of the picture.

It is simply proper to ignore and/or disobey the state when the state is acting contrary to God's Law (as many American states are right now in matters of marriage).

We don't seek the approval of a secular government for any other rite of the church - though some make a curious argument that the state has the trump card over marriage. If they do, the COW had better start adjusting our marriage rites to accommodate the new realities.

I just don't buy it.

I have a cousin (Christian) living in Saudi Arabia. Her husband (a Muslim) has two wives. She does not consider wife #2 to be a valid wife. I don't believe she should be compelled to accept the state's warped definition of marriage as somehow binding on her Christian faith.

How silly to deny New Hampshire's authority when it comes to allowing two men to marry, but then turn around and tell a man and a woman that unless they get a gender-neutral license *from the very same authority,* we won't give them a church wedding!

Again, we're living in la-la-land if we think the state is our friend in matters of defining and recognizing marriage - especially in those states that are kowtowing to the "gay" agenda (which I think will soon be all states after the Supreme Court gets around to imposing it on all the states they way it did with infanticide).

I believe people *should* get legal recognition of their marriages - for purposes of contracts, insurance, taxes - especially if children are involved.

But things are changing. I can see a time when I would have no problem solemnizing marriages that have no recognition by a secular government. "What *God* has put together..." The state (especially a state that calls a holocaust of 40,000,000 dead babies to be a "right") is not our God. God can (and does) work through the state - but so does Satan.

Since all of our dogmaticians are dead, and since they all lived before anyone would ever imagine two men or two women could "marry" - not to mention the many other abominations carried out in the name of the contemporary state - I think we ought to take their pronouncements with a grain of salt when it comes to church/state relationships. Our sainted dogmaticians never foresaw a time when church and state would be so out of sync on matrimony.

Again, I think a formal severance of the church and state is the best solution. If people want a state marriage, fine. if they want a church marriage, fine. If they want both, fine.

As it stands now, I think it is typical to demand a marriage license (a note from Nanny) before we carry out matrimonial rites. Of course, that was fine when Nanny was sane. But now, Nanny has become a sex-crazed baby killer - and she seems to be getting loopier all the time.

I think the church ought to keep her entanglements with the state to a bare minimum. When you lie down with dogs, and all that.

WM Cwirla said...

"We don't seek the approval of a secular government for any other rite of the church - though some make a curious argument that the state has the trump card over marriage. If they do, the COW had better start adjusting our marriage rites to accommodate the new realities."

The problem is that marriage has not historically been considered a "rite of the church" among Lutherans, at least in the same way as ordination or the sacraments. Luther is clear in his Traubbüchlein that as he presides over the exchange of vows and rings he is functioning on behalf of the prince.

This understanding rests on two pillars: First, marriage is considered a 1st article gift of creation, as Ap XIII indicates, meaning that it is not proprium of the Church. Second, government authority is derived from parental authority according to the 4th commandment in the Large Catechism. Therefore the proper jurisdiction of marriage is with home and government and not the church.

These are peripheral doctrinal issues that would have to be reconsidered if the church were to establish its own jurisdiction over marriage. As I indicated above, Rome and Orthodoxy provide such a template.

I do agree that we ought seriously to consider getting out of the marriage certificate signing business and stick to what is proper for the church. I can find no evidence in the Scriptures or the early church for our concept of "church weddings."

Aaron said...

A friend of mine got married in Brazil. The custom there is to get a civil marriage, then later the marriage is recognized by the church.

James Sarver said...

How many Pastors actually ask to see the marriage certificate of a couple that present themselves as being married. I thought not! It is irrelevant. Marriage consists of mutual consent and intent of permanence (as well as one male and one female). Since only God can read hearts to determine this we can only go by public confession. Church and State create nothing but only affirm what appears to exist. The State does this for purposes of determining eligibility for access to State services such as dispute resolution. The Church does this as well for the sake of good order.
A man and woman who have not had Church or State acknowledgement but mutually consent and intend permanence of their relationship are and have always been through history married. It appears to arise spontaneously from all societies. As Christians we know it is not spontaneous but is the will of God for human organization, even among those who do not know Him.
As for the State, it may grant access to services to whom it wishes, married or not. Real marriages often qualify as a form of 'civil union' that the State recognizes. It is convenient for the State to call all these 'civil unions' marriages but they are not.
Unless the State publicly acknowledges this to be the case and formally calls what it sanctions civil union rather than marriage our great-grandchildren will still be debating this.

Rev. Robert Franck said...

"How many Pastors actually ask to see the marriage certificate of a couple that present themselves as being married?"

My guess is 100%, though I can't be certain. In most states, pastors need to sign the certificate and return it to the state for the marriage to be valid.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Um. . . let me be devil's advocate.

If we were to move to a point where we sought no legal benefit from the state for our marriage. . . would there be any reason or necessity of having a religious service or blessing. Folks could simply plight their troth and live sans any ceremony whatsoever.

James Sarver said...

Pastor Franck,

I did not mean a couple presenting themselves for a marriage ceremony but rather representing themselves as already married (e.g. new members or visitors). Their marriage certificate is irrelevant to the Church. Its purpose is to verify eligibilty for public benefits. They are married because they say they are, unless that status would violate God's law in some way. I believe you could conduct a marriage ceremony in good conscience for them without the certificate as long as they agreed not to petition the state for benefits based on that ceremony. Neither the ceremony or the certificate create marriage.

James Sarver said...

Pastor Brown,

"If we were to move to a point where we sought no legal benefit from the state for our marriage. . ."

You don't need the devil to advocate this. It happens all the time and has throughout history. States usually refer to it as "common law marriage". It is not recognized anymore in the U.S except for a couple of states because of the difficulty of legal determination. That doesn't mean people who formerly qualified for benefits are no longer married. They just can't petition the state for dispute resolution, etc. It is a rare example of the state recognizing its limitations. People all over this planet, millions of them, are validly married without the blessing or formal recognition of Church or state. It has always been so.

In the Church we do the ceremony in the name of good order. Only God can read the heart regarding consent and intent of permanence. As in the state, all we have to go on in the Church is public confession of that intent. Yet we want to acknowlege that the couple is doing the will of God for civil order by marrying and we wish to celebrate and support it. That is far from being useless.