Churches as Civil Authorities

The issue for this post is not Yes or No on same-sex marriage; the issue is this: Should churches and pastors and ministers be official representatives of the State? What do you think? 

George Weigel is now contending Catholic priests need to re-think that connection and role:

To address the threat of the “gay insurgency, which will press the administration to find some way to federalize the marriage issue and to compel acceptance of the chimera of ‘gay marriage,’” Weigel writes that “it seems important to accelerate a serious debate within American Catholicism on whether the Church ought not preemptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • CGC

    No!. The churches more operate that the government empowers us to perform weddings, be certified or ordained, function as churches, etc. It is not the State that empowers the church but God!

  • Jeff Stewart

    But the church operates that way when there is the insistence of pre-marital counseling and there is no recognition of people being “lawfully” married unless a ceremony is performed by the pastor/priest. More often than not, leadership positions are not allowed if someone is “co-habitating.” A signed government document usually changes things.

  • Stephen

    No! I’m for having all legal unions supervised by a government official, and couples who want their union officiated by their religious tradition can do so if they choose. As a pastor I do not want “power vested in me by the state” to ensure they have no say over restrictions or requirements I make for couples I marry.

  • Dave Z

    After an extensive study a year or two ago, I came to the conclusion that the American church has, without really realizing it, defaulted to the state’s definition of marriage instead of a biblical (and historical) definition. In light of that, I think we’d benefit from a clear distinction between Christian marriage and whatever the state “evolves” to. A friend from Europe (I don’t remember exactly where) told me that in his home country, legal marriage is a civil affair; if a religious blessing is desired, it is an entirely separate event, with no legal ramifications.

  • Noah Filipiak

    It does seem a bit inconsistent to represent both the government and God in the same role, considering the separation of Church and State. Is marriage a legal institution or a religious one? It seems in this context, it is legal. We as Christians have freedom of religion, but I could definitely see a gay couple taking legal action against a pastor/priest because he won’t officiate their wedding due to religious convictions of not agreeing with gay marriage.

    Personally, I’ve always found it a bit odd that officiating weddings is a part of my job description as a pastor. I signed up to be a pastor because of my desire to lead people to Jesus, not so I could do weddings. It was like someone thought, “Who can we get to do weddings?… Librarians, no… school principals, no… doctors, no…pastors, YES!”

  • Johannes

    I have been having this debate in my head ever since reading Campbell’s “Brother to a Dragonfly”. Being a young pastor in a rural setting telling people to have the justice of the peace sign their marriage license would not be warmly received.

  • Peter Davids

    While I am not worried about federalizing marriage or the like, I have long felt that the separation of legal marriage and church marriage as in many European countries is desirable. After all, the Chruch did not get into the marriage business for 9 or 10 centuries (and there is evidence that at first at least in some places they joined people of the same sex – those liturgies exist, although it is not clear they were sexual). I also think the church should get rid of tax exemptions and the clergy housing allowance, although I currently benefit from both. The blessing of marriage is fine as is the taking of clearly Christian vows, but let us separate it from state legal requirements. That frees us theologically and legally from state constraint. Fewer would seek church marriage, but those who dud would really want church marriage, rather than religious blessing in some vague way of civil or legal relationship. When the kingdom gets involved in the state’s business, so to speak, it gets diluted and should not complain if the state gets involved in its business.

  • + Alan

    Nope. And while we’re at it, let’s take the flags of State and voting booths out of our sanctuaries and facilities. Perhaps we could become a peculiar people again… in a good way.

  • Randy Siever

    We ought to (as pastors) completely disengage from the mother ship of state. Let the state decide who will be legally joined, and how. Leave us out of it. But also leave us out of any state benefits like manse/housing allowances, tax-deductions for contributions, property tax exemptions, etc. Clean house. Be free. And then maybe we will have a little more credibility when it comes to the prophetic voice in our culture. The fact that a LOT of pastors seemed ok with violating the laws regarding endorsing of candidates this past election tells me it’s time to disengage.

  • Steve Robinson

    When the Church gets in bed with the State the kids are always ugly. ABSOLUTELY, the “Church” should bless unions according to their traditions and leave the civil legalities of the union to a State entity. “Marriage” should be defined by the Church, civil unions by the State. If the State wants to grant legal rights to anyone/everyone, let it. It should not concern the Church.

  • Adam

    I think the question should be re-framed a little, because historically the church has been the civil authority. That is now changing to the idea that civil authority comes from consent of the people rather than the divine. As a church, or as christians, do we believe that the masses of people are the source of authority or do we believe God is the source of authority? How do we work out the authority of God among people who do not follow him?

  • Kullervo

    Under current federal and constitutional law, race is the category most protected against discrimination by an immense margin. Nevertheless, the government cannot compel churches to solemnize interracial marriage. To my knowledge, there is not and has not even been any serious attempt to try.

    Merely making gay marriage legal would not give sexual orientation anywhere near the protection that race has. So why does anyone think the government is going to make churches solemnize gay marriages?

  • DRT

    I like the RCC way of doing this. In the Protestant churches I have been to, it was the minister that marries the people. In the RC tradition there is no need for a priest, the people marry each other. Then it makes total sense to go get the civil part done so the state recognizes it, or not.

  • Kullervo


    We as Christians have freedom of religion, but I could definitely see a gay couple taking legal action against a pastor/priest because he won’t officiate their wedding due to religious convictions of not agreeing with gay marriage.

    What legal action? There is no legal action that the hypothetical gay couple here could take. You can’t just sue because you’re offended. Or rather, you can try, but your suit gets dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

  • Marshall

    CGC, I think you are missing the point. When the officiant signs the marriage license, they are acknowleging the necessity for the State to grant permission before conducting the observance. The church, each church, should take back the authority to set qualifications for itself, as the Holy Spirit guides each heart.

    There needs to be a federal definition of marriage as long as the tax code recognizes “married, filing jointly”.

    I think the argument boils down to who gets to use the word “married”, and I think it’s the churches. Weigel’s proposal is right: just don’t sign that paper any more. Let the couple do that for themslves at the courthouse.

  • Paul W

    I, for one, am wholly mystified by the disproportionality that exists between the assumption that churches should be in the business of performing weddings and the utter lack of ANY significant biblical-theological discussion on that topic. Does anyone else wonder about this ecclesial practice too?

    Is anyone aware of anything that even remotely resembles a serious systematic or biblical-theological treatment concerning why churches should perform weddings?

  • Patrick


    Where do we get the idea the pagan state should be involved in marriages? Marriage theologically is seen as a metaphor for Christ and His church union, I don’t see why the state has a role myself.

    I’d say the state needs to jump in the lake here, not Christ’s assembly.

  • Paul W

    @17 Patrick

    I’ve seen page after page written about various obscure details of church practices (e.g., how water should be applied during a baptism) but not a single serious biblical/theological discussion about weddings. Given the practical import that weddings have in the life of many churches and the reassessment that is happening in popular culture I am a bit suprised by this. Are you?

    Perhaps I simply do not know where to look and so I asked the question.

    How about you. Are you aware of the inclusion of the topic of Churches performing weddings in any systematic theology? How about any individual volumes from a biblical-theological or a liturgical-theological point of view? Any sizeable entries covering this in any of the major Bible or Theological reference works (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias). Are you aware of any significant ‘Position Papers’ from a broadly known Ecclesial body?

    Is anyone aware of current work being done or a history of this sort of theological inquiry? Anyone?

  • Kullervo


    Where do we get the idea the pagan state should be involved in marriages? Marriage theologically is seen as a metaphor for Christ and His church union, I don’t see why the state has a role myself.

    Property law.

  • Jag

    Marriage not only predates Christianity, it has a far wider spread culturally and globally. The Christian church can claim to ‘own’ marriage, but that’s a little like claiming ownership of consuming bread and wine.