When Tennessee passed a law prohibiting people ordained online from certifying marriages, American Marriage Ministries, an online organization that provides ordinations, sent four of its “ordained” ministers to the state to ordain as many people as possible in person before the law went into effect July 1. A subsequent lawsuit brought on behalf of ministers ordained online has stayed the new law for now. The suit argues that the law violates religious liberty.
I imagine that’s true. I don’t think it’s the government’s business to regulate ordination or to define what constitutes a church.
Some critics of the law have suggested it was a ploy to make same sex marriages more difficult to obtain since finding a minister ordained by a traditional faith group who would perform a same sex wedding could create barriers for queer people. For me, the problem is that this is an issue of ordination at all. The industry of online ordination arose because of states’ laws about who can certify a marriage. While the requirements vary from state to state, all states accept ordained ministers, and some states only accept ordained ministers or judges or justices of the peace.
“What bothers me about online ordination and the sudden ordinations in Tennessee by American Marriage Ministries is ordination itself.”
Most couples want an officiant with whom they have a relationship. Particularly for non-religious people or people who don’t participate regularly in religious observances, an ordained minister makes little sense, and most likely they don’t have a personal relationship with a judge or justice of the peace.
The online ordination industry has created a way for people to be able to ask their closest friends and family members to serve as their officiants. Hundreds of thousands of people have gone online to get ordained – not because they had a calling, not because a congregation had affirmed their gifts for ministry, not because they had completed a theological education and preparation for ministry – but so they could certify marriages.
Frankly, I think pretty much anyone should be able to officiate at a wedding and sign the legal forms. States easily enough could create some sort of system for people to register as officiants.
As a Baptist, I struggle with signing the governmental paperwork to certify a marriage. I don’t like acting in my role as an ordained minister as a functionary of the state. But I also want to honor the people who want me to officiate, so I do it, even with my qualms about it and hoping for a better system someday.
What bothers me about online ordination and the sudden ordinations in Tennessee by American Marriage Ministries is ordination itself.
Part of me appreciates the subversive nature of online ordinations for everybody who wants one. Too often ordination in churches has become a pathway to power and authority, making pastors “rulers” as fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention declared in the 1980s.
On the other hand, I am among a significant number of Baptist women who paid a high price for ordination. We were called to ministry. Our gifts for ministry were affirmed by churches that sent us to seminary.
“My ordination and the ordinations of other Baptist women are also evidence of a struggle for justice.”
We went to seminary at a time when the denomination was pronouncing that women were excluded from ordained ministry because Eve was “first in the fall.” When local churches did call women such as Nancy Sehested as pastors, associations often kicked those churches out. Molly Marshall, the first woman to teach theology at a Southern Baptist seminary and an ordained minister, faced untold harassment and abuse at the hands of fundamentalists for her refusal to be constrained by gender roles.
After I finished my Ph.D. at a Southern Baptist seminary, neither of the Southern Baptist churches I attended on the West Coast could ordain me because they would have been disfellowshipped by their local associations. Had I been ordained while teaching at the Baptist college in California, I would have been fired. I waited until I no longer taught at a Baptist institution and then had to go back to my seminary church in Louisville to be ordained.
I struggle when I hear people refer to what they receive online as an ordination. Ordination to me is precious. It is costly. It means something about how I see my role in relationship to others, to the church and to God. In ordaining me, Shalom Baptist Church consecrated me, not to rule, but to embody God’s love in purposeful ways in a broken and unjust world.
My ordination and the ordinations of other Baptist women are also evidence of a struggle for justice. They reflect a history of Baptist women who answered a call to ministry despite a lack of role models, denominational opposition and discrimination. They are a reminder that gifts are not distributed by gender, that in Christ there is neither male nor female, and that, as we learned in GAs, “You can be anything God calls you to be.”
Online ordination cheapens that. It cheapens the sacrifices that Baptist women and women in other denominations and religious traditions have made to open paths to ordained ministry for women.
Ordination should not be a requirement for officiating at a wedding. That said, rather than encouraging friends to be ordained online to perform weddings, Baptists and other Christians should be advocating with governments to change laws about who can certify a marriage.
Meanwhile, we should reaffirm the core requirements for ordination: a calling to, affirmation of, and preparation for ministry.