Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

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.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. 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.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

That said, it’s precisely that distancing that is the problem. One of the defining debates concerning the Affordable Care Act concerned the nature of religious belief. Was “religion” simply something one practiced during public worship services or was it something larger than that that could touch all of life? The Obama administration insisted on the former definition, thereby reducing “freedom of religion” to “freedom to worship” and declaring that religious non-profits could not receive the same exceptions enjoyed by churches on issues such as insurance coverage of contraception. There was a great deal of sturm und drang about the whole saga and yet you might recall that when the case went to the Supreme Court… the traditionalists won.

It’s a bit odd then that only a few months later we have three very prominent pastors and scholars–two drafters and then Rev. Leithart who was amongst the first signers–suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further steps to separate Christian faith from the public square, which we have apparently accepted is and ever shall be secular, world without end, amen.

Thankfully, we need not look far to find a good rebuttal to this position. This libertarian argument was advanced by an Inkling but, thankfully, it was also rejected by a second Inkling, Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien. In a letter to Lewis that he never actually mailed, Tolkien wrote:

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.

You can read more of Tolkien’s response in an older post I wrote for Mere O here. It’s worth reading the whole thing because his reply gets to the point nicely: By granting that civil and religious marriage are rightly thought of as separate, distinct things we are needlessly bolstering the argument of the marriage revisionists by granting to them the point that Christian marriage–and the rest of Christian ethics, presumably–can be understood to exist in a purely religious sphere disconnected from the life of the commonwealth. Such a concession, as Tolkien rightly notes, teaches both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian worship isn’t really meant for all of life, but only for that small slice that we still (for now and with the blessing of the state, I’m sure) call “religious.”

It’s possible that there is a prudential point to be made here about how Christians can protect themselves legally in nations where same-sex marriage is the law of the land and conformity to those ideals is enforced by a magistrate backed up by the vindictive winners of the most recent chapter of the culture wars. But before we can discuss that, we must discuss the tone and manner of how we address the public square. And on that level, this pledge is marked less by legal prudence and more by a posture that attempts to look courageous and prophetic but that is actually a timid, meek act of surrender that needlessly weakens the position of orthodox believers.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • RobD

    To which Supreme Court case are you referring? In the Wheaton College case, the stay was based on Wheaton’s objection to certain language in the form that HHS required religious non-profits to use. Wheaton was still required to request the accommodation in writing, but could do so using language of its own choosing. The Court did not permit Wheaton to avail itself of the regulations covering houses of worship. So, the Supreme Court’s action in the Wheaton College case did not settle the issue to which you’re referring. In fact, last Friday, a federal appellate court in DC ruled against a religious non-profit who raised precisely this issue. See Priests for Life v. HHS (D.C. Cir., Nov. 14, 2014).

    And, if you’re referring to the Hobby Lobby case, that’s ever further off, as the case only dealt with closely held for-profit organizations.

  • RobD

    I would also note that Puritan clergy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not involve themselves in civil marriages. In my view, our conflating of civil “marriage” and Christian marriage has probably done more harm to Christian marriage than it’s done to prop up civil “marriage”. Clergy would seem to have no more business signing a civil marriage license than in approving a deed for the transfer of real property.

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  • Guest

    The writer makes a good point. Cannot Christian pastors and priests simply refuse to marry same-sex couples? Not only does withdrawing in this way reinforce secular society’s notions about the significance of Christian beliefs for the public square, this could also encourage, on the other side, a withdrawal by Christians in other areas of society. We don’t need to encourage another fundamentalist separatism. For decades now Christians have been encouraged to

    On another level, I also wonder whether, regarding the marriages themselves, there is any reason to think that marriages conducted in this two-system manner will be any more permanent than those under the current system.

    So both for practical reasons and for the purpose of making a statement, I have doubts about the effectiveness of this idea. It certainly won’t shock the general public or politicians into reforming their views of marriage.

    • beyond partisan

      “Cannot Christian pastors and priests simply refuse to marry same-sex couples?” For now. But given the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement, churches will be sued soon enough.

      • TexasStomp

        I’m hoping pastors and churches counter sue requiring said couples to convert, join the church and like Catholics, attend a year of weekly catechism and marriage classes before they can be married in one of their churches.

  • rick_w55

    (Sorry for the odd set of posts here. The “guest response beginning with “The writer makes a good point” is mine. I accidentally hit the “go” button and then tried to delete the post. Somehow it was retained and marked “guest.” I will here complete the first paragraph.)

    For decades now Christians have been encouraged to get involved in the public square, to influence culture in a variety of areas including politics, the arts, education, and matters of family and sexuality. We are to do this in spite of the fact that non-Christian beliefs hold sway to a significant extent, and in spite of occasional antagonism. Will we now withdraw in this most vital area?

  • Sarah

    RE: “suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking *further* steps to separate Christian faith from the public square . . . ”

    Actually I think it is very possible to no longer serve as agents of the state, while not at all disengaging from the public square. There is nothing in Radner’s/Seitz’s pledge that says that they won’t be engaging fully in the legal/political processes to protect and defend a proper legal definition of marriage — while acknowledging that *now* the state has defined marriage as something that it is not and that clergy cannot support.

    teaches
    both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian
    worship isn’t really meant for all of life, – See more at:
    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpufRE: “teaches both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian worship isn’t really meant for all of life . . . ”

    It’s not — for non-Christians — as we see from those who are allowed to participate in the Holy Eucharist. The pagans do not participate in that sacrament nor should they in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Setting off the appropriate boundaries on that — and making them yet more distinct — seems all to the good.

    RE: “this pledge is marked . . . more by a posture that attempts to look courageous and prophetic but that is actually a timid, meek act of surrender . . . ”

    Certainly it *might* be used in such a fashion — but it will actually require clergy of certain denominations in the US to be bold and fearless, since revisionist clergy and bishops will denounce and seek to hinder such pledges.

    Back ten years ago when the revisionist activists were going down in defeat to referendums, they promoted this kind of disentangling, but now that they’ve won a top-down forced pretense of acceptance through judges and courts, they’re going to see this kind of clergy pledge as defiance and also clear recognition by citizens of the farce that will be, increasingly, government marriage contracts. The shrieks of rage from the left will be clamorous as the last thing they’ll want to see is demonstration of the loss of reputability of government marriage contracts.

    suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further
    steps to separate Christian faith from the public square – See more at:

    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpuf
    suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further
    steps to separate Christian faith from the public square – See more at:

    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpuf
    suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further
    steps to separate Christian faith from the public square – See more at:

    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpuf
    suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking further
    steps to separate Christian faith from the public square – See more at:

    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpuf

  • Sarah

    RE: “suggesting that orthodox believers ought to be voluntarily taking
    *further* steps to separate Christian faith from the public square . . .

    Actually I think it is very possible to no longer serve as
    agents of the state, while not at all disengaging from the public
    square. There is nothing in Radner’s/Seitz’s pledge that says that they
    won’t be engaging fully in the legal/political processes to protect and
    defend a proper legal definition of marriage — while acknowledging that
    *now* the state has defined marriage as something that it is not and
    that clergy cannot support.

    teaches
    both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian
    worship isn’t really meant for all of life, – See more at:
    https://mereorthodoxy.com/marriage-pledge-libertarian-solution-marriage-debate/#sthash.AfPvts0D.dpufRE: “teaches both Christians and non-Christians that what goes on in Christian worship isn’t really meant for all of life . . . ”

    It’s
    not — for non-Christians — as we see from those who are allowed to
    participate in the Holy Eucharist. The pagans do not participate in that
    sacrament nor should they in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Setting
    off the appropriate boundaries on that — and making them yet more
    distinct — seems all to the good.

    RE: “this pledge is marked . . . more by a posture that attempts to look courageous and prophetic but that is actually a timid, meek act of surrender . . . ”

    Certainly
    it *might* be used in such a fashion — but it will actually require
    clergy of certain denominations in the US to be bold and fearless, since
    revisionist clergy and bishops will denounce and seek to hinder such
    pledges.

    Back ten years ago when the revisionist activists were
    going down in defeat to referendums, they promoted this kind of
    disentangling, but now that they’ve won a top-down forced pretense of
    acceptance through judges and courts, they’re going to see this kind of
    clergy pledge as defiance and also clear recognition by citizens of the
    farce that will be, increasingly, government marriage contracts. The
    shrieks of rage from the left will be clamorous as the last thing
    they’ll want to see is demonstration of the loss of reputability of
    government marriage contracts.

  • Sarah

    Ack — apologies for the double post.

  • DGB

    “By granting that civil and religious marriage are rightly thought of as separate, distinct things we are needlessly bolstering the argument of the marriage revisionists by granting to them the point that Christian marriage–and the rest of Christian ethics, presumably–can be understood to exist in a purely religious sphere disconnected from the life of the commonwealth.”

    Compare: The state has no policy encouraging citizens to worship only the one true God. This despite the have that prohibitions against idol worship are rather important to Christian ethics. Maybe this bolsters the case that who or what citizens worship doesn’t matter for the life of the commonwealth?

    I tend to think not. I don’t want the state encouraging any particular religious behavior because I don’t trust secular magistrates to get their theology right. And in any case, even if they do get their theology right, government-run anti-idolatry programs will be at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. I’m not conceding that who citizens worship doesn’t matter for the common good or the worship of God is confined to some tiny churchy bubble. I just don’t think the state is any good at encouraging true worship.

    Similarly, I think that disengaging Christian marriage and legal marriage is right thing to do. I’m not conceding that marriage doesn’t matter for the common good. I just (a) don’t trust secular magistrates to get their views on marriage right and (b) don’t think the state is any better at encouraging true marriage than they are at encouraging true worship.

  • christopher seitz

    This Christopher Seitz lives in Dallas TX. His colleague Ephraim Radner is a Priest in The Episcopal Church. Both teach at Wycliffe College, where they are licensed as clergy. Neither believes in a retreat from the public square anymore than First Things does and how disentangling civil and Christian spheres for the purpose of solemnizing marriage is a retreat from culture and not a witness to it is baffling.

    • RobD

      I agree completely. It confounds me as to how anyone could construe this action as a retreat from the public square. If anything, it’s a retreat from syncretism.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      Doug Wilson has a winning and convincing rebuttal to “The Marriage Pledge” at

      In Which First Things Does Some Fourth Things.

      Excerpts, but do read it all:

      ” It is good to see men drawing a radical line, and doing so in defense of biblical marriage. There is a clear awareness that we do need to have a showdown, and that is all to the good.

      But . . . and you knew this was coming . . . we need to think this through more carefully. We need to have a strategic plan that is based on solid theological foundations, and it should be a plan that is designed to be implemented by churches, and not just by individual churchmen. Here are my reasons for thinking that this plan at First Things does not meet those criteria.

      [A listing of good and persuasive arguments]

      For all these reasons, and for others I will no doubt think of or read about later, I would urge ministers not to sign this pledge, and would also urge any others who may have signed to withdraw their names. We do need to fight, and we need to pick our battlefield. But we should really want to defend an actual fortress, not a fiberglass castle.”

      P.S. Doug Wilson will interact with folks over at his blog.

  • wmrharris

    There are perhaps two reasons why Christians might want to look at this option. The first is that it creates a space for proclaiming a Christian view with far greater clarity. Where the clergy is an agent of the state (“by the power vested in me…”) their actions — no matter how safeguarded by conscience clauses — nonetheless participate in the edifice of state-sanctioned marriage. If we object over the vaguest of whiffs of compromise with insurance, then surely this is a much more direct matter. Standing outside of the formal acknowledgement by the State gives the Church freedom not only to proclaim, but also to act justly towards those seeking same-sex unions.

    Our gay neighbors can and often do live responsibly as couples, and in doing so demonstrate many of the attributes we prize in marriage. It is futile for the Church to deny this human truth. Separation of marriage between civil and religious meanings then creates a space where we can deal more justly, more humanely with our neighbors. This would be the second reason.

    Now, were we to insist on the joining of civil and religious views, that view of marriage would rob us of the ability to speak to our neighbor except as matter of law. Every marriage becomes a kind of political protest. More importantly, we end up with two assessments of marriage as it is: the “real” one we Christians do, and that other one. And of course, such a stance carries with it more than the whiff of judgementalism, the kind that limits the possibility of proclamation rather than expanding it.

    And practically, the proposal carries especial weight for those in mainline churches (like Radner and Seitz) and the far greater diversity of those communions. By removing the weight of the civil, one can move away from a unitary reading of marriage, a reading that generates continued conflict with one’s brothers and sisters. Separating can then make the Gospel freer, and our selves more available to our enemies.

  • skywire

    I disagree. Marriage will still be a public act, not removed from the public square. These ministers are not at all proposing acknowledging that civil and religious marriage are *rightly* thought of as separate, distinct things, but that civil ‘marriage’ is in fact now not marriage.This ‘divorce’ was sought by the state, not the church.

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  • <<>>

    Exactly. It seems that we could come up with a solution where all are winners, but maybe that is not possible. Along with redefining marriage comes a redefinition of human sexuality and then how those new definitions – based not on nature – affect public policy.

    People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we all get along?
    – Rodney King

    Not a bad idea, even though Rodney had lots of personal issues. The sentiment is a good one. It may not be possible in real life.

    <<>>

    In certain circles, the tone coming from any kind of Christian group or individual is taken as extreme, unloving, and even un-Christlike. Don’t know how to change that, but it seems like it needs to change on all sides.

    We Christians can decide as individuals and groups to tone down the rhetoric and actually love people and listen to their point of view, but without losing our own values in the process. Maybe it is too late for that, but maybe not. Maybe that is a fool’s errand. I want to give it a try, myself, but also defend the truth.

    <<>>

    I was wondering the same thing. Thank you.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Don’t know why the first thing came out weird. Sorry about that.

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