Looking Back to Think Ahead: Baptists and Obergefell v. Hodges

Looking Back to Think Ahead: Baptists and Obergefell v. Hodges July 1, 2015

A committed evangelical, today I write out of and to my narrower ecclesiastical tradition (Baptist) as I address the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.  All others are welcome to listen in or ignore me as they see fit. 

U. S. Supreme Court Building (Credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last Friday (June 26, 2015) should surprise no one who has been paying attention.  In the wake of the second Clinton administration, by the turn of the twenty-first century the cultural tide on issues related to marriage and sexuality had turned the corner.  (For example: see the Pew Research Center data on changing public opinion on gay marriage here.)

Unfortunately, some contemporary Baptists have taken a rage-against-the-machine approach to these recent developments.  But, in the end, Obergefell v. Hodges means that same-sex marriage is the law of the land and, apart from equally unacceptable options like secession, such approaches lead down a dead end street lined with considerable collateral damage.  Instead, contemporary Baptists should consider their history–not simply looking back over the last forty years, but the last four hundred.

In this longer view, it could be argued that Baptists have been here before: placed outside the bounds of what a the majority considers respectable–or even acceptable-by the legally enshrined predominant collective conventions and social mores of contemporary society.  Baptists began that way, compelled beyond the pale by deeply held religious doctrines that they believed were built upon the incontrovertible truths of Scripture.

Regardless of their forbears, the contemporary Baptist movement finds its roots in seventeenth-century English Separatism.  Separatists were Puritans who gave up on their hopes of transforming the Church of England into their own image and separated from it, meeting in conventicles.  Soon, they illegally formed their own churches outside the watchful eye of the state.  As they studied the Bible, Separatists in different locations became convinced that the Scriptures taught that a church must be a self-constituted body of those baptized after a credible testimony of conversion and public profession of faith given to the gathered body.  They began to baptize converts into their small “churches.”  Soon they began dunking them.

And so they became Dissenters, disagreeing with the prevailing custom on religious matters and acting according to their collective ecclesiastical consciences.  For this, they suffered legal sanction and were socially ostracized.  The crown denied them many of the benefits of English society, such as opportunity to attend the universities, the right to hold public office, and the opportunity to receive a “proper Christian burial.”  Often jailed, many died in prison.  Further, as Dissenters, they could not receive the approbation nor benefits of a marriage recognized by the state.  Even so, they continued to perform marriages, insisting that marriage was “ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife (1689 Second London Confession, Ch. 25),” apart from any legal benefits in the larger society.  Acting simply as pastors and not acting as functionaries of the state, early Baptist ministers performed marriages within the context of their own congregations.  Like other ecclesial functions, early Baptists did not feel that they needed the endorsement of the state in order to perform marriages because marriage is a fundamentally religious institution, not a political one.  They were right.

Fast forward four hundred years.  In America, the Dissenters are now (ironically?) functionaries of the state, performing marriages that the state recognizes as duly constituted, legal unions.  Now, the state has declared that same-sex marriage–a marriage that many Baptists believe contradicts both historic, orthodox Christian belief and the incontrovertible truths of Scripture–is a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  As public support for religious liberty issues erodes, it seems unlikely to me that pastors with deeply held religious beliefs regarding marriage will long be able to resist the state’s compulsion in this matter.  As a result, Baptist churches should carefully investigate their marriage policies, rewrite them if needed, and incorporate them into their bylaws.  This is the time for precise, carefully-worded legal language that best expresses the church’s will on matters of marriage, not slipshod, late-night committee work.  Second, the time has come for Baptist pastors to de-link themselves from the state in matters of marriage. This is not some sort of capitulation or weakness, but rather a return to an earlier era when Baptists deemed that the spiritual nature of marriage was much more important than any political or social benefits the state might offer.  Couples married according to the church’s policies could still apply for a marriage license from the state if they desire the benefits that the state affords, but such action allows the church to say with integrity that it only performs religious ceremonies according to its deeply-held religious beliefs as defined in its bylaws.  No one is excluded (or included) except on those clearly-defined religious grounds.

Such a move should more effectively situate the church under the umbrella of the First Amendment.  Hopefully, it will have the fortunate side effect of causing pastors and churches to think more seriously about marriage as a spiritual and religious institution as well as their ministerial responsibilities towards those they join together in “holy matrimony.”  Somehow, such things seem to have gotten lost between the seventeenth century and the twenty-first.

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  • cken

    How holy can the baptists consider marriage when they have a higher divorce rate than the rest of the nation generally.

  • Erin E.

    Miles, I don’t think that religious authorities will be compelled to perform same-sex ceremonies as readily as some might think. Consider that Catholics, right now, refuse to marry couples for any number of reasons. If one party has been divorced, then a couple may not be married without an annulment – outside of the Church, however, such marriages are perfectly legal. The church even refuses to marry couples where, for physical reasons, the marriage cannot be consummated (again, that’s perfectly legal outside of the Church). These “rules” (agree with them or not), are there because of the theology held by the Catholic Church on the sacrament of marriage. So I’m not sold at all on this slippery slope argument, partly based on this precedent.

    However, I do agree with you, and have thought so for a long time, that separating the legal aspect of marriage from the religious is the way to go.

  • stefanstackhouse

    The marriage bit is here, the closure of universities and public service careers to dissenting Evangelicals will soon follow.

  • Sven2547

    As public support for religious liberty issues erodes, it seems unlikely to me that pastors with deeply held religious beliefs regarding marriage will long be able to resist the state’s compulsion in this matter.

    This scaremongering again.

    When prohibition ended, Mormons were not forced to imbibe alcohol.
    When Loving v Virginia was decided, Southern Baptists were not required to perform interracial weddings.
    When no-fault divorce became lawful, Roman Catholics were not compelled to sanctify remarriages.

  • MesKalamDug

    In some ways the divorce situation is worse than the marriage situation. I cannot
    see how a church marriage that is not also a civil marriage can be ended in divorce. The Catholics have solved that by denying the existence of divorce. Who
    could grant a Baptist divorce?

  • HematitePersuasion

    Alas, it already has: see Unsystematic Theology.

  • Miles Mullin

    Sven: I think you have misread both the tone and the content of my post. My intent is to encourage Baptists (and I would probably extend this to other religious groups–even those with whom I personally disagree) to take their own claims about the religious nature of marriage more seriously and their own role as state clerks less so.

    I would suggest that the cases you have cited above (perhaps with the exception of Loving), are not analogous to the present situation. In the prohibition example, the Mormons were not acting as functionaries of the state with some sort of legal authority. In the RC example, the court allowed no-fault divorce, but that is quite a different matter than if the court would have said that divorced persons were a protected class under the 14th amendment…

    Thanks for reading.


  • Miles Mullin

    Although the reality is that as long as there are legal benefits to marriage most people will seek civil recognition, this comment raises the right questions–questions about the religious nature of marriage that Baptists should have been thinking about and reflecting upon much more seriously for decades. I hope that that point came through in the last two paragraphs.

    Thanks for reading!


  • Miles Mullin

    A good question. This is exactly the sort of thing I think Baptists should be concerning themselves with as they take the religious nature of marriage more seriously.

  • Miles Mullin

    Hey Erin:

    I’m not sure whether they will or not, however, for Baptists (and others of the free church tradition), I think it is the right approach to proceed as I suggested.

    The difference with the RC situation (perhaps), is that Catholics actually have a rigorous religious understanding of marriage that is well-articulated. They can easily make the “this is a religious rite” argument. Like their forbears, contemporary Baptists have needed to be more serious about the religious nature of marriage for quite some time IMO, and now is the time.

    Having said that about RC’s, I am not sure that state functionaries can refuse to perform a function that the court has said is a fundamental right guaranteed to all its citizens under the 14th Amendment. I could be wrong, but the logic seems to follow for me.

    Miss you guys!


  • Adam King

    “Such a move should more effectively situation the church under the umbrella of the First Amendment.” This sentence no verb. Did you mean “situate”?

  • ahermit

    I think the target of Sven’s comment is that unsupported remark about the supposed erosion of “public support for religious liberty.”

  • The Happy Atheist

    If you choose to express opinions society considers discriminatory, yes. Would you expect anything else?

  • The Happy Atheist

    That is the only part of the article I’m struggling with. I actually agree with the rest.

  • Miles Mullin

    Ah. Well I certainly don’t have any hard evidence like a Pew poll to cite, but it seems that the idea of religion (practice and speech) as a specially protected class seems to be eroding to me. I’d be happy to be wrong about this as I believe “the Founders” (and my Baptist forbears) were right in their approach to religion, but it does not seem to be an assumed “first principle” of public life anymore.

  • Miles Mullin

    Ah. I replied to ahermit above. Hope I’m wrong on this, btw, as I believe the First Amendment, in all its protections, helps maintain a robust public discourse–non in every instance, but certainly on the whole.

  • Lark62

    I agree with most of this.

    However, separation of church and state is safe. To say otherwise is just fear mongering. Churches do not have to perform any religious ceremony. And atheists would line up to protect your freedom of religion.

    What may change is the exclusive rights religions have in some states. In a few states, the law requires that only ministers/religious leaders can perform weddings. This has led to the weird situation that someone ordained by the Church of Bacon can officiate a wedding while a Humanist officiant cannot. This needs to be fixed by expanding who can officiate at weddings.

    But that won’t hurt churches.

  • Lark62

    Equal protection under the 14th amendment says the govt cant treat one group differently. Churches are not the govt. As long as the government never says “only Baptists can officiate weddings,” you’re fine.

  • Lark62

    The govt cannot control or limit what a person chooses to say. But they are not protected from people disliking what they say.

    A person can say that some races are inferior and should never mix. That’s legal. A corporation has every right to refuse to hire someone with those views.

    Gay people exist. They have jobs. If a person’s words indicate that they would be unable to work alongside a gay person or a black person or an immigrant, they may find it hard to find work.

  • Miles Mullin

    One might argue that ministers acting as functionaries as the state are, in fact, the government–at least as much as clerks in courthouses “are” the government. They are licensed by the government and performing a governmental task even as they perform a religious one. My argument is that–at least for Baptists–the religious one OUGHT to be more important.

  • Lark62

    Govt employees who process paperwork can’t pick and choose. They can’t discriminate.

    But I agree with you that officiants should not be required to perform any ceremony. The state needs to allow religious and non religious officiants and apply the same rules across the board.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Yes, sort of. The US Constitution has a clause that prohibits any religious test being a qualification for public office. There is not a religious faith system on earth that does not affirm certain things as being true or good, and by implication at least suggests that certain other things must be false or bad. That very evaluation is inherently discriminatory. So what we really are coming to is a society that pretty explicitly enforces a standard that the holding of any religious belief at all is to be an inherently “discriminatory” person, and thus to be a pariah, unacceptable, and disqualified for any public office (or other position of privilege). What we are seeing, in other words, is the gradual but inevitable nullification of the religious test clause of the Constitution. We are not entirely there yet, but it is coming pretty fast.

  • ahermit

    I disagree. In fact for those who do not share your particular religious beliefs it looks as if the concept of religious freedom is stronger today since your religion may have less influence over the political life of the country.

    If the local Quaker meeting or UU church is willing to recognize same sex marriages why should your religion be able to over-rule them?

    Your loss of privilege is not due to erosion of support for religious liberty but to a recognition that such liberty belongs also to those with beliefs which differ from yours..

  • Miles Mullin

    Yes. Thx!

  • The Happy Atheist

    You’re absolutely right that every religion is inherently discriminatory and that there’s nothing wrong with that. I totally agree. But when you take those discriminatory principles into the public sphere, then you’re going to have problems. I honestly don’t mind if you think homosexuality is sinful, but I definitely do mind if you’re trying to create public policy out of that belief.

  • EVA-04

    Actually what you really mean is this: Your loss of privilege is recognition that such liberty belongs only to those with beliefs which differ from yours..

  • ahermit

    How do you figure that? That’s not what I said at all.

  • Miles Mullin

    So… are ministers not working for the state when they pronounce something like, “By the powers vested in my by the state of X, I now pronounce you man and wife” or whatever the specific language might be? I think there is a logic–implicit in your fifth paragraph–that there that will be pursued by some and with some success.

    The Court’s decisions today do not guarantee anything for tomorrow.

    Even so, I’m not actually all that concerned that the state is going to “force” ministers to perform certain types of marriage. And I’m certainly not fearful. I’m much more concerned that many Baptists have taken the minister’s role as a functionary of the state much more seriously than the role as spiritual shepherd in the matters of marriage. Although I do see a serious–and perhaps logical–erosion of religious liberty as a real possibility in these matters, that was not my main thrust even if it was the one we everyone has latched upon.

    Thanks for reading. I really do appreciate it.


  • Andrew Dowling

    When you perform a marriage you are not suddenly a “functionary of the state” like a state employee is . . .you are simply performing a state-sanctioned action.