Point/Counterpoint: Signing civil marriage licenses

July 2, 2015

Bart Barber: Protecting families by signing civil marriage licenses

If changes in American marriage law make American churches rethink their practices surrounding weddings in order to make them more distinctively Christian, that will be a good thing. Those reforms, however, need not jettison the signing of civil marriage licenses by pastors.

The government is involved in marriage because marriage relationships often present issues of interpersonal justice. Adjudicating matters of interpersonal justice is precisely the cause for which God ordained government. When marriage goes awry, the government can protect the rights of spouses and children by means of its coercive force in ways that churches simply cannot and should not do.

We need government to be involved in the business of marriage.

We must not hesitate to call the state when we credibly suspect abuse. Churches preach against abuse and should discipline abusers spiritually, but we also need the state to come alongside our spiritual discipline and effect physical discipline upon abusers. In like fashion, the spiritual aspects of marriage and the temporal legal aspects of marriage work in cooperation with one another. I do not always agree with what our state does in terms of family law, but that does not prevent me from recognizing our need for the state to intervene in family situations that demand coercive intervention, whether by jailing an abusive father or by enforcing spousal or child support upon a neglectful one.

Because this protection is important, to eschew the signing of marriage licenses is either to deny those protections to spouses and children or to push those couples who are marrying into other arrangements. In some states like Texas, it may mean pushing couples into common-law marriages. Does it serve our purposes to lead couples out of an institution (statutory marriage) recently opened to same-sex liaisons and into an institution (common-law marriage) long associated with premarital cohabitation?

Common-law marriage lines up with the Christian ideal of marriage no better than statutory marriage does. If not common-law marriage, it may mean pushing couples into the offices of their local Justices of the Peace, where they will obtain the same kind of marriage we refused to officiate. For the marrying couple, then, they would obtain either the exact same thing as if we had signed the license (statutory marriage by other means) or something less Christian (common-law marriage or no legal protection of spouses and children).

The sole remaining reason to forego the signing of marriage licenses is to prevent pastors from serving as “agents of the state.” Some fear that being perceived as an agent of the state will be the camel’s nose under the tent by which the state will eventually coerce churches to bless same-sex unions. I think this fear is naïve and overly suspicious. It is overly suspicious because pastors have been discriminating over whom they will and will not marry for centuries (I won’t marry two Jews, two men, three Christians, two people who won’t attend premarital counseling), but no jurisprudence exists suggesting any move on the part of the state to clamp down on this form of discrimination. To begin to force pastors and churches to perform marriages to which they object would amount to a dramatic change in the landscape of American law.

If such a dramatic change were to occur, it is naïve to think that a little objection like, “But I don’t sign marriage licenses,” would forestall it. To speak frankly, my church’s 501(c)(3) exemption probably exposes me to more entanglement with the state than does my signing of marriage licenses, but I don’t think many churches intend to relinquish that exemption until it proves to be absolutely necessary. I’m simply arguing that we should treat the signing of marriage licenses in the same way by waiting to discontinue our involvement in this aspect of American family law until the state forces us to do so.

Peter Leithart: Intensifying political struggle by refusing to sign civil marriage licenses

Earlier this year, I signed a pledge stating that I will no longer sign state-issued marriage licenses when I perform a wedding. I will no longer declare the couple married “according to the laws of this state.” The reason is simple: What I do at a wedding and what the United States increasingly defines as marriage are radically different things, and I want to make the difference as clear as I can.

I signed the pledge despite recognizing that some of the criticisms that have been lodged against this move are reasonable and possibly correct. Critics are definitely correct that refusing to sign licenses is inadequate, half a response or less. Critics may be correct that it will have little impact, and they may also be right that it’s premature. Some of the criticisms are laughably wrong-headed, especially those who argue that refusing to sign marriage licenses is a retreat from the public square.

My Southern friends assured me that my move was unnecessary since many Southern states have statutes and constitutional provisions defining marriage in Christian terms. They warned me that refusing to sign a license was illegal in Alabama, an act of civil disobedience. Then a federal court demanded that Alabama counties start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the state Supreme Court responded by ordering courts to uphold the Alabama Constitution and stop issuing marriage licenses. When the dust settled, I found myself in the good company of Alabama’s probate judges–all of us defying the non-law coming down from federal courts. None of us are signing marriage licenses.

Taking a pledge is a small gesture, but gestures provoke and can galvanize. It’s a bit of political theater, but theater can shatter complacency. Political theatrics must be preceded and followed by principled and strategic discussion, but effective political theater raises the stakes and intensifies a political struggle.

And intensity is what we need. American legal institutions have been rapidly redefining humanity’s oldest social relation, a relation God originally designed and still creates. Given the breathtaking hubris of federal redefinitions of marriage and the totalitarianism implicit in the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, discussion cannot go on forever. It must begin to give way to deeds.

This article was featured in our inaugural issue of Light Magazine. Visit the ERLC store to download Light for free and discover more resources.

Bart Barber

Bart Barber has served as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, since 1999. He is married to Tracy (Brady) Barber. Bart has a B.A. from Baylor University in their University Scholars program, an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a Ph.D. in … Read More

Peter Leithart

Peter J. Leithart is an American author, minister, theologian and president of Theopolis Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. Leithart blogs at Peter J. Leithart, which is hosted by the journal First Things. He previously served as Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature as well as Dean … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24