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Prominent Protestant Pastors Vow To No Longer Perform Government Marriages

Two Protestant pastors, concerned about rapidly-changing government definitions of marriage, have started a movement encouraging priests and ministers to refuse to perform civil marriages.

Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner, Episcopal and Anglican pastors respectively, launched “The Marriage Pledge” at the conservative religious journal First Things on Tuesday.

“As Christian ministers we must bear clear witness,” it reads. “This is a perilous time. Divorce and co-­habitation have weakened marriage. We have been too complacent in our responses to these trends. Now marriage is being fundamentally redefined, and we are ­being tested yet again. If we fail to take clear action, we risk falsifying God’s Word.”

The new definition of marriage no longer coincides with the Christian understanding of marriage between a man and woman. Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

Please join us in this pledge to separate civil marriage from Christian marriage by adding your name.

While the Anglican and Episcopalian communions do not have rites for a marriage ceremony between two people of the same sex, some parishes and dioceses will allow the performance of special services at the request of same-sex couples, who may or may not already be married in the eyes of the state.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Matthew Schmitz, First Things’ deputy editor. “I used to oppose calls to get government out of the marriage business, but times have changed. Many people see this and many more will. The signatories include some of the most clear-eyed and learned pastors who have refused to go along with the new orthodoxy on marriage. I expect more will follow their lead, if not today, tomorrow.”

First Things, an ecumenical journal whose contributors and staff are predominantly Catholic, has been one of the staunchest voices against gay marriage in recent years. Radner serves on its advisory council.

Just last spring it hosted a symposium on the relationship between religious marriage and the state, with Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and various Protestant scholars debating whether “churches, synagogues, and mosques [should] stop performing civil marriages?”

“The Christian Church should continue to oversee civil marriages,” Radner, a professor of historical theology at the Anglican Wycliffe College, argued at the time, “but only so long as she is free to choose which couples she will do this for, on the basis of her own understandings of marriage and of her witness. … My main reason for saying this is simple: Marriage — the lifelong union between a man and woman for the sake of mutual support and, God permitting, the bearing and raising of children — is a universal human estate, bound to God’s creative and redemptive will. Regardless of the civil state’s views on the matter, the Church is bound to further and nurture this estate, and if the state provides the means for the Church to do this, however partial or confused, all the better.”

Most of the scholars agreed with Radner, saying that while things looked dire, it wasn’t yet time for their faith communities to sever ties. Now, less than a year later, a growing number of faith leaders are acknowledging that while the state keeps using the word marriage, it doesn’t mean what it thinks it means.

Schmitz told The Daily Caller that the idea for the pledge came at a meeting of scholars and theologians after a speech made by Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput in October, during which he expressed sympathy for the desire to divorce church and state over liberalizing marriage definitions.

“A friend recently suggested that the Church should get out of the civil marriage business altogether,” Chaput said. “In a way, it makes sense. It’s hard to see how a priest or bishop could, in good conscience, sign a marriage certificate that merely identifies spouse A and spouse B. … Refusing to conduct civil marriages now, as a matter of principled resistance, has vastly more witness value than being kicked out of the marriage business later by the government, which is a likely bet. Or so the reasoning goes. I don’t necessarily agree with this approach. But in the spirit of candor encouraged by Pope Francis, I hope our nation’s bishops will see the need to discuss and consider it as a real course of action.”

Unlike the diversity of opinion sparked at the previous year’s meeting, Schmitz explained, “This time, the disagreement had mostly disappeared.”

Thus far Seitz and Radner have been joined by Peter Leithart, influential Presbyterian minister and president of the Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies, as well as pastors and elders from a variety of other faith traditions, including Methodism, Lutheranism and a Baptist church.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity to sponsor this pledge,” said the journal’s top editor, R. R. Reno. “Now is a time for rending, not for the sake of disengaging from culture or retreating from the public square, but so that our salt does not lose its savor.”

Follow Tristyn, a former First Things Junior Fellow, on Twitter