“You can’t fire me. I quit.”
As Valentine’s Day approaches some Christians are proclaiming this, in essence, to government officials who promote a view of marriage antithetical to biblical understanding.
The Christian journal “First Things” is rightly critiquing the new, official view that marriage begins whenever any two individuals of whatever sex decide, and ends whenever the mood of one of the partners changes. But “First Things” then mistakenly promotes a “marriage pledge” by which ministers refuse to sign government-provided marriage certificates.
Under the journal’s proposed doctrine, a couple marrying in church will also have to go to a justice of the peace. “First Things” argues, “To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.”
That argument reminds me of the attitude of William Lloyd Garrison and other Northern abolitionists who favored separation from the South so they would no longer be part of a slavery-condoning nation. But by washing their hands of the matter those pastors were not helping the slaves—nor would a church boycott of marriage certificates do anything to help young couples steer clear of government’s unbiblical definitions.
It looks like about 300 pastors, elders, priests, and other church leaders have signed the pledge. Their discretion may be prudent, since governments down the road could prosecute ministers who perform marriages between a man and a woman but refuse to do the same for same-sex couples. But these 300 are unlikely to inspire children throughout the centuries, or filmmakers now, as 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) have.
Those 300, commanded by Leonidas, knew more than 100,000 Persians would attack them. Persian King Xerxes sent to Leonidas an ambassador who offered enticements: Abandon your posts and receive the title “Friends of the Persian People.” Leonidas said no. The emissary then returned with a written demand by Xerxes: “Hand over your arms.” Leonidas responded, “Come and take them.”
Five hundred years later, the Apostle Paul in Philippi also refused to give in, or give up his rights as a Roman citizen: “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly?”
The book of Acts also tells us that Paul in Jerusalem used his birthright to gain a right to speak: “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city.” Later, “when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen?’” Paul then explained to the tribune in charge, “I am a citizen by birth.” The whipping stopped.
The 300 Spartans died, but in dying they saved Greece. Paul eventually suffered martyrdom, but his goal was to keep preaching as long as he could—and he stood on his rights so he could make every day count.
Most of the readers of this magazine are Americans, citizens of a country founded by those who saw church weddings as the real thing, not just a show with no legal validity. A pastor can make life easier for himself by telling members of his congregation to go to the courthouse, but most Americans have long trusted churches as the main arbiters of marriage. Now distrust rides us, but pastors should not abandon the pass they have been defending.
According to Plutarch, one soldier complained to Leonidas, “Because of the arrows of the barbarians it is impossible to see the sun,” and Leonidas replied, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?”
Yes, 300 church leaders have decided to vacate our contemporary Thermopylae, but 500,000 (I’m one of them) have signed a more general statement, the Manhattan Declaration, which calls the church to be bold and courageous on three issues: the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage, and freedom of religion.
Maybe 300 or more pastors should make a specific declaration concerning the cloud of summonses and warrants that may descend on them for refusing to perform same-sex marriages: “Won’t that be nice? We’ll have paper on which to print our responses.”