Article  Marriage and Family  Religious Liberty  Marriage

Should the Church Get Out of the Marriage Business?

In the various arguments over the conflict between religious liberty and the sexual revolution, scenarios are typically batted away as being “slippery slope” arguments. The problem is that the slope is getting slipperier all the time. We were told, not long ago, that of course no one would be forced to officiate at a same-sex wedding, and yet here we are, with an Idaho couple facing fines, maybe even jail, for refusing to use their wedding chapel to officiate same-sex marriages.

This news brings two questions: should these wedding chapels be illegal, and should they exist? These are two questions, not one. And here’s why the distinction matters.

Should Wedding Chapels Even Exist?

Let’s look at this question first as the church. The husband and wife involved are ordained Foursquare Church ministers, who marry people at a chapel they manage. We disagree with them, strongly, about the wedding chapel business. One of us has been arguing for years that the “marrying parson” in every community trivializes both the gospel and the authority of the church. A minister is not a civil servant but a representative of Christ’s church. He should officiate a wedding only in cases where the couple are under the accountability of the church. Those gathered at a Christian wedding are not just “guests,” they are witnesses to a vow. The “authority vested in me” of the minister is not the authority of circuit clerk’s office but the authority of the gospel and the discipline of the church.

That’s the point of the apostle Paul’s careful distinction between those “on the inside” and those “on the outside” of the church—their accountability to discipline (1 Cor. 5). The church has no authority over unbelievers—including over their vows—and shouldn’t pretend to hold such authority. The requirements for marriage for unbelievers overlap with those of believers in many ways, such as a male/female, one-flesh union bound together by fidelity. But some marriages are perfectly acceptable for unbelievers (marrying another unbeliever, for instance) that are wrong for those who belong to Christ.

For all we know, the couple running this chapel may be acting under the authority of their church. They may be diligent in marrying only those who bear accountability to Christ and who are not only naturally but spiritually fit to marry one another. That may well be. But we know many of these “wedding chapels” do no such thing. We wish they were an entirely secular enterprise, like the justice of the peace, and that they did not cloud the witness of the church. And we would insist, even then, that a secular enterprise should not be coerced into affirming same-sex marriage if it goes against the consciences of its owners.

Should Wedding Chapels Be Legal?

That said, saying that we don’t agree with these wedding chapels is not to say that we think they should be hounded out of business. Again, these are two separate questions. Our churches don’t ordain women either, as in the case of this co-pastor, but we don’t want the government to outlaw women’s ordination. There is no compelling government interest in running this couple out of business, sacrificing their First Amendment rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. Such government-enforced orthodoxy shouldn’t exist in a free country.

We think that Christianity is true, and that therefore Islam is not. Yet it does not follow that we want the government empowered to root out mosques. Quite to the contrary, we want a free society where we seek to persuade our Muslim neighbors that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, even as they seek to persuade us that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Disagreement shouldn’t mean legal bullying or intimidation.

We disagree with these free-floating marrying parsons, whether in Elvis costumes in Las Vegas or in a Baptist church down the street, and we cannot emphasize how strongly we chafe at them. We ought to be free to make our case, and the wedding chapels ought to be free to go about their business, and to ignore us, at least as far as the law is concerned.

This is a matter for the church, not the state, to debate and discuss. In the argument over whether a minister of the gospel ought to act like a justice of the peace, we shouldn’t have the sheriff and the jailer involved.

Russell Moore and Andrew Walker
Russell Moore is President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture and the Director of Policy Studies for the ERLC.

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