Should Churches Stop Performing Civil Marriages?

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In the April 2014 issue of First Things, I’m part of a symposium addressing the following question: “With the legal affirmation of same-sex marriage in some states, should churches, synagogues, and mosques stop performing civil marriages?” Below is my answer. Check out First Things to see the rest of the contributors’ thoughts. You can subscribe here.

No, not yet. Marriage is, of course, more than a matter of statecraft. That’s the reason we deny that the state can, for instance, call marriages into being without creational essentials such as sexual complementarity. Marriage is grounded in the natural order itself (Gen. 2:21–23) and points beyond nature to the Gospel mystery that stands behind and makes sense of the cosmos (Eph. 5:31–32).

Obviously, then, if the state ever forced congregations or religious institutions to solemnize unions that are not, in our view, marriages, we would be compelled to obey God and conscience and not the bureaucrats. Even with the audacity of recent religious liberty incursions, though, that moment will not be upon us any time soon.

Instead, what we see are governments affirming both those unions we would recognize as marriage and those that are something else. As citizens, we ought to oppose redefinition of marriage, but, should we lose across the board, what should we do as churches?

Churches should join together only those who meet the creational criteria for marriage. A church that accommodates itself to the sexual revolution is no longer a church of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, churches should only marry those who are accountable to the Church and to the gathered witnesses, and who are held to their vows.  The marrying parson who stands where the wedding coordinator tells him to, reads his script, and signs the paperwork for whatever couple shows up is a disgraceful hireling and ought to do an honest day’s work as a justice of the peace rather than as a steward of the mysteries of God.

When a congregation certifies a biblically married couple to be also civilly married, the congregation is not affirming the state’s definition of marriage. Instead, the Church is witnessing to the state’s role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society. We are bearing witness to the fact that these unions are the business of the larger society in ways other unions aren’t.

We are witnessing that the state has no business in recreating marriage, but the state does have a responsibility to safeguard children, by holding mothers and fathers to their vows to each other and to the next generation.

In this sense, we are acting much as Jesus did when he was asked about the payment of the temple tax. Jesus believed himself and his disciples to be heirs of the kingdom and thus free from this obligation. Nonetheless, he paid the half-shekel “so as not to give offense to them” (Matt. 17:27).

If the state ever attempts to force us to call marriage that which is not marriage in our churches and ceremonies, let’s obey God, even if that means we sing our wedding hymns in the prison block. But, for now, by registering Gospel-qualified unions as civil marriages and not officiating at unions that not Gospel-qualified, we call the government to its responsibility even as we call attention to its limits.

We gladly render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but the image imprinted on the marriage union isn’t the union of Caesar and his court, but of Christ and his Church.


This is part a of a larger article in the April 2014 edition of First Things entitled “The Church and Civil Marriage.” You can read the full article here.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).