The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on the matter of same-sex marriage, requiring all states to authorize the binding of such relationships. The court decision has established that – in the eyes of the law – same-sex marriages are of equal dignity with heterosexual marriage.
Since the Renaissance the institution of marriage has been a defining battleground between the Nation State and the Church. Henry the Eighth created the Church of England in order to divest the Pope of authority over issues related to marriage and divorce. Napoleon excluded the Church from any role in deciding who could marry and who could not. The Supreme Court’s decision is one more step in this long tradition.
Marriage in the United States of America is fundamentally a civil affair. One does not go to the church, synagogue, or mosque for permission to marry. We go to the county courthouse and apply for a license to marry. This license is a declaration of partnership in which the State maintains a vital and continuing interest.
The State does not care where two persons declare themselves to be married. The venue for a wedding can be anywhere. Christians seemingly prefer to say their vows in the church near the altar in the area called the sanctuary. The state requires that a reputable official witness that they have done just that. The witness of a judge, justice of the peace, mayor, ship captain, or cleric simply certifies that the couple has done what they applied to do and what the license supplied by the courthouse authorizes.
In previous generations the recognition of the state’s authority was explicit, even in the context of a church wedding. I still remember from my early days as a young adult and then a pastor that the older pastors announced a marriage by saying, “By the power invested in me by the State of Texas, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” It never dawned on me that it was important to these pastors to affirm that they were operating on behalf of the state in pronouncing the marriage and they were functioning on behalf of the church in extending God’s blessing on the newlyweds.
Now that the law has changed in Texas, various denominations and individual congregations will decide how they will respond to this significant change in American society. There are (I believe) three possible responses: local churches can condemn the reality of same sex marriage, they can ignore the reality of same sex marriages, or they can bless the reality of same sex marriage. It is not, however, within their power to forbid the reality of same sex marriage. No church has the authority to decide who may (or may not) create a marital partnership. This authority is the exclusive province of the secular sovereign.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has already determined that individual congregations and pastors will decide whether they will provide for their members the opportunity to exchange promises and pronounce a blessing over those promises. The social statement entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” was approved by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly held in Minneapolis. This statement serves as a guide to Evangelical Lutheran Churches in our witness to Christ in our diverse world. The document recognizes that we are not of one mind on issues of sexuality, marriage and family. We can, however, respect each congregation’s effort to follow the Spirit’s leading as we hear the gospel in our assemblies and other gatherings.
For Christ the King Lutheran Church the change in our civil law does not change most of our wedding policy. We hold only member weddings. That means one person in the couple must be a member. We will schedule a wedding so that one or both of the couple will have been a member (members) for at least six months. A wedding is approved by the congregation council only after a pastor recommends a couple following a period of counseling or marriage preparation. We are not a commercial wedding chapel. We are a faith community specializing in interpreting God’s presence revealed in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. And we bring this perspective to a wedding.
Now that the law has changed, we will need to respond to members who are affected by this change. The day will come when a member(s) of our congregation will go to the county courthouse and apply for a license to marry someone of the same sex. They will then request that the congregation hold their wedding. The pastors will counsel with them and likely recommend to the congregation council that their marriage be approved and affirmed. In just such a case we will honor Christ and support the baptized in the blessed and challenging task of life lived in faithful relationship.
This is – on the most basic level – consistent with who we are as Lutherans. As a Community of Faith we endeavor to bless and support commitment, stability, faithfulness and love. The high calling of these noble qualities applies equally to same sex unions as it does to heterosexual unions. If the State is going to create the fact of same sex unions, then our Lutheran identity demands that we offer our blessing to those members who publicly exchange promises of fidelity. This requirement is not a function of the sex of the prospective spouses; rather, it is a function of our character.
Our congregation welcomes all people in our fellowship and institutional membership. Our denomination accepts gay and lesbian pastors, including those in a public, committed, and monogamous relationship. That being the case, it would seem to me that we must be prepared to hold weddings for same-sex couples by which they may order their lives by their life-long promises to one another.
Lutherans are big on God’s promises, especially the promise made to the human race in Jesus Christ. We are created in God’s image, and at no other moment are we as much like God than when we ourselves make public, life-long, monogamous relationships through our own promises. Unlike God, however, we are fallible creatures who do not always succeed in those promises. For this reason we find we are in need of the human community around us to assist us in faithfully carrying out our covenants and living lives ordered and oriented to the reception of God’s Word, who is Jesus Christ, whose Spirit makes us free.
The church has always understood that the love of God manifest in the death and resurrection of Christ establishes a new covenant, a new promise. We have come to understand that the new promise reveals God’s inclusion of all races, genders, classes, castes, sexes and sexual orientations in God’s unmerited grace. Each decision to include has not come easily, but it comes necessarily packaged in the gospel that we are commissioned to proclaim.
King’s Banner, Volume 70, Number 7, August 2015