By Drew Zimmer
As our nation continues to argue over the legality of same-sex marriage and the dangers it may potentially pose to religious freedom, I am left wondering about a more basic question few Baptists seem to be pondering, but should: Why does the government recognize a religious ceremony in my church, performed by my pastor, as a legally binding civil union in the first place?
The state does not engage in any kind of oversight to ensure that my pastor is properly joining persons into legally binding unions. The only thing the state requires of my pastor to perform this legal function is for him simply to say, “By the power vested in me by the state of Tennessee” before pronouncing the union official.
Isn’t it odd that ministers have power vested by the state? How should ministers wield this vested power? My pastor can marry any man and woman that he chooses to — no matter how dysfunctional, dangerous, or insane they may be. Should it not concern us that our “wonderful pastor” has no more power to perform legal marriages than the “crazy pastor” down the street?
Can a legal definition be given to the love that I share with my wife? Our love — marriage — is not about a license, tax credit, health insurance, survivor benefits, or any other legal advantage of a marital union. Our marriage is a covenant between three beings: my wife, God and myself. No other person or legislative body has any authority to instruct us on how we live out our love for one another.
As churches, we do a disservice to our faith if we allow the government to define marriage. Churches must work harder to teach the religious concept of marriage to parishioners. Equipping them with a religious view of marriage protects the sanctity of marriage from becoming nothing more than a legal contract.
Churches should be places of religious ceremony for faith communities. Government should not have the right to give legal status to a ceremony that the government itself is incompetent to understand or bless. Even if the government could conceptualize marriage legally in a way that Christians find appropriate, it would be wrong to hold the clergy and institutions of other faiths, in our pluralistic society, to the same religious marriage concept.
The notion of the church teaching a way of life contrary to that promoted by secular society is not a new idea. The early church was challenged to be countercultural. The decision to follow Jesus had, and continues to have, ramifications for family and social life.
For instance, in some Baptist congregations today, following Jesus means abstaining from consumption of alcoholic beverages, even though the government does not make such a prohibition for adults. Some Baptist churches teach that dancing is sin, even while other Baptists dance — perfectly legally — in worship.
The government, thankfully, has remained silent on these issues of doctrine. Wouldn’t it be better, therefore, if we keep the debate over the sanctity of holy matrimony within the walls of the church? If we continually ask the government to intervene to protect the sanctity of marriage, we will lose the ability to define our own faith. Do we really want Congress to legally define our religion? Is this what those who are for or against same-sex marriage want out of this debate?
In Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah are religious ceremonies that solemnize a Jew’s passage from childhood into adulthood. The ceremony is usually held on the child’s 13th birthday. From this point on, the child is accountable to the Torah just as an adult would be. This marks the time when the child begins full participation in Jewish communal life.
Our government, however, requires that persons reach the age of 21 before full participation in society is allowed. Is this governmental requirement anti-Semitic? The Jewish tradition practices its rites and ceremony within its community and does not allow the government to define the Jewish tradition. In the same way, our Baptist institutions need not give government the authority to define our traditions. Each religious institution remains free and obligated to teach and practice within their tradition.
The debate over same-sex holy matrimony can continue in local congregations and religious institutions. The government, however, must provide a legal framework for couples who want to become civil families. Without any legal status for couples seeking a union, we run the risk of chaos.
Government exists to protect the rights of all of its citizens and to provide order for society. The church, meanwhile, exists to glorify God. Churches must continue to teach their beliefs to parishioners — but, imagine with me, just for a second, a world where ministers received their power and authority not from the state, but from God.