Reclaiming Christian Marriage: What the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Needs to Learn from the Southern Baptists


On June 19, 2014, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to allow their pastors to perform “same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.”[1] As expected, this has caused no small hubbub among American Christians. While gay rights advocates and Christians on the left have lauded this progressive decision and praised the denomination for changing its official policy on marriage, conservatives vociferously oppose the change and some have even threatened financial boycotts and departure from the denomination. Deafened by debate over the theological legitimacy of same-sex marriage, no one seems to have noticed the insidious elements present in the specific wording of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) resolution: “where such marriages are legal.”

By permitting clergy to officiate these ceremonies only in states where same-sex marriage is legal, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), herein referred to as PC (USA), commits two critical mistakes: first, it allows state policy to determine church theology and practice, and second, it perpetuates the problematic conflation of civil and church marriage in America. The circumscription of church practice and theology within state law is a dangerous self-imposed restriction, one that ought to be condemned by everyone on the left and the right. In order to be a faithful church, both those who endorse gay-marriage and those who condemn it must recognize these false presuppositions underlying the PC (USA)’s resolution.

Law and Theology

To put it plainly, the PC (USA) has confused the rules of men for the rule of God.[2] Its resolution allows pastors “the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform” as long as it is “permitted by the laws of the civil jurisdiction.”[3] But in order to be faithful to Christ, the church must do what the Holy Spirit calls it to do, regardless of state law. The church’s calling is not bound by state borders.

To be Christian means to profess as the apostles did before the Sanhedrin: “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29 NRSV). Because we acknowledge that no one can serve two masters (Luke 16:13), our full allegiance must be to the God revealed in Scripture. The early church accepted this and was willing to obey God despite knowing they would be flogged for breaking the decrees of the local authorities. It is the command of Christ, and not the Sanhedrin, that has ultimate authority in the life of the faithful. The church today would do well to remember this. Relegating church practice to state policies—policies that are shaped by political motives and bureaucratic self-preservation, not concern for the kingdom of God—rejects the authority of Christ and places spiritual discernment in the hands of the state.

Some readers may balk at this argument, questioning how seriously we have taken the scriptural imperative to submit to the governing authorities as laid out in Romans 13. But submission to the governing authorities in that passage means paying “taxes to whom taxes are due” and giving “respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). Submission does not mean that Christians bend their theology to comport with secular ideologies. Before Paul commands the church to submit in chapter 13, he commands the church to “hold fast to what is good” (12:9). Even in submission, then, Christians cannot abandon truth, justice, hospitality to the outcast, or charity.
Although the church is responsible to the state as a divinely appointed institution (13:1), the church is nonetheless truly the church when it speaks prophetically, unencumbered by the strictures of the state, as a voice crying out in the wilderness against the false gospels and half-truths offered up by the world. The church’s responsibility to the state, as the theologian Karl Barth said, sometimes requires protest and prophetic witness against the worldly powers. The church can never allow the state to determine its identity and purpose; it can never be secularized by the law of the state “and its definitions.[4] According to the proclamation of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazi state’s encroachment upon church matters, “The church must remain the church,” a community ruled by Christ over, and possibly against, any earthly law.[5] Referencing Nazism may risk sensationalism, but the Confessing Church’s proclamation remains a necessary word for the church today, a word that we fear is missing in the PC (USA)’s resolution.

There is then a strange lesson for the PC (USA) to learn from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC has taken a public moral stance that they support theologically and scripturally, regardless of state law: they will sever fellowship with any congregations that support same-sex marriage. With this, the SBC has actually understood something important about the relationship of church and state that the PC (USA) has overlooked. The Baptists know that whatever God condemns, God’s people must also condemn. And whatever God approves, so must God’s people, regardless of state legislation. Likewise, when considering gay marriage, PC (USA) congregations should do as they prayerfully believe the Holy Spirit is calling them, not as their local governments may dictate.

There are no limits to the life of faith. Some may be called to eat locusts and honey in the desert; others may be called to sacrifice their only child on Mount Moriah; and still others may be called to work from nine to five in office cubicles. The common thread among the faithful is a simple obedience to the will of God. For Christians, the making of a marriage is an extremely potent act—not a thing to be taken lightly or left to the whims of a secular state. It is God who joins two together as one in holy matrimony: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). The state has no power over marriage other than that which God has given it.

At a wedding one of us recently attended, many guests were distraught because the person performing the ceremony was not licensed by the state. “Is this even a real wedding if it isn’t recognized by the government?” they asked. This is a fairly common phenomenon—to privilege the government’s part in a marriage over the church’s—and it is telling: Christians confuse the authority of the government for the authority of God in a murky mingling of church and state. It seemed to the wedding guests that the state had sole authority to define marriage—and by implication, reality itself.
Although the instinct prompting this response may be of pure motivation (perhaps, say, deference to the government as instructed in Romans 13), it is nonetheless misguided. The church is the witness to God’s goodness, and it should never be restricted by state law. It is the church that claims to have the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the church that must prove this claim to an unbelieving world by living faithfully in the light of the life of Christ. By living according to a theology determined by the world, the church only proves that it serves a lord other than God.

Civil and Church Marriage

More than seven decades ago, C. S. Lewis penned the following words:
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.[6]



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