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Pastors as "agents of the state"

Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh has taken the rare action of voting to prohibit the pastor from acting as an agent of the state in legalizing marriages until the state grants the same opportunity for legal marriage to gay couples. The vote, held Nov. 20, was unanimous.

The action comes as no real surprise. Pullen's practice of offering holy unions for gay couples goes back 20 years. That's what got the church kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 (it was also disfellowshipped from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the Raleigh Baptist Association). Pullen still maintains affiliated with American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Alliance of Baptists, and other groups.

The church has a history of prophetic social activism sparked by pastors such as W.W. Finlator (1956-82) and Mahan Siler (1983-98). Siler has long questioned whether pastors could, in good conscience, perform state-sanctioned wedding ceremonies for straight couples while the state denied the same right to gay couples. Current pastor Nancy Petty, who self-identifies as a lesbian, took the initiative of asking the church to consider the prohibition so the congregation as a whole could take a stand on the issue.

I've known other pastors who have adopted the same stance as a personal decision, but Pullen is the rare church that will make it a church policy. The church will continue to host and sanction weddings as holy unions for both gay and straight couples -- the pastor just can't sign the marriage license, so heterosexual couples will need to stop by a magistrate's office at some point if they wish to satisfy the state.

Aside from the issue of justice being illustrated so well by Pullen's decision, I've often wondered whether pastors shoud be acting as agents of the state anyway. In performed many weddings, I chose not to say "by the power invested in me by the state of ..." before pronouncing a couple to be husband and wife. But, I still scrambled around with the wedding license, performing my state-mandated duty of filling in the date and place, getting witnesses to sign, adding my signature, and mailing it in under threat of dire penalties if I should forget.

Many pastors and churches, I know, oppose same-gender marriage and thus don't see marriage inequality as an issue. Even so, is expecting pastors to act as government agents a violation of our cherished principle of the separation of church and state? That's a subject that deserves some serious thought.

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Reader Comments (6)

I believe pastors should get out of the business of acting as government agents when it comes to weddings. Why can't we be like other countries where a civil ceremony is the official one? You can always have a religious ceremony, too.

I am not ordained, but I do preach several times a year. I was licensed to the ministry, but I am well content at this time in my life to be a supply preacher. I think ordination will be an option in the future, but for the life of me I can't see the benefits of it except for the tax status and for the power to be that official government agent at weddings. I keep wondering exactly when or if I'll be ordained, but after hearing other preachers make the same decision that Pullen has made, I don't think I'll accept an offer to be ordained until all can marry or until the church and state ceremonies are separated .

Separation of church and state is the baptist principle that I watch out for the most when it comes to issues like this. I hope more baptist churches will make the decision that Pullen had made for that reason alone if their congregations are not ready to sanction gay marriage. It is time to separate civil and religious for the equality of all persons in our nation.

Nov 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlin

Aside from the volumes that could be written on how shameful it is that so-called gay "marriages" (a biblical and logical impossibility) are celebrated in this way by a Christian church, let me stick to the other issue.

Any pastor willing to accept a tax break for housing or any church willing to enjoy its tax-exempt status should have absolutely no problem voluntarily performing the simple civic duty of validating a wedding ceremony.

You can't have it both ways, so it's not terribly impressive to take the cash in one hand while celebrating some sort of civil disobedience with the other. If Pullen's (or anyone else's, for that matter) stand included a declaration to forego all tax advantages from this point forward, I might have some respect for their position. But I don't see that happening any time soon.

Nov 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDC

I used to think of Baptists as rather judgmental and pig-headed, quick to denigrate anyone who isn't just like them. This story is inspiring, and makes me see Baptists differently.

To me, if a couple is in love and wants to commit to each other for life, sometimes raising children, they should be encouraged to do so, and that's no different if it's a gay couple. How is that not the Christ-like thing to do.

Enough already of the anti-gay hate. It's archaic, ignorant, and very cruel.

Nov 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTony Maciej

Dr. Cartledge,

Without engaging the discussion about same-sex unions, you make a wonderful point about pastors acting as agents of the state in weddings. I have encountered several couples co-habitating not because they are unwilling to commit to each other, but because their health insurance might not carry the spouse. I have wondered whether or not pastors should consider (and I am not here yet) having a public ceremony to "wed" a couple without signing a marriage license. The church would recognize the union before God. The state would not.

And, I agree with DC about housing benefits, though I do claim them while they are available. It is a valid point.

Thank you for sharing this.

Nov 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim Marsh

Tim's comments about health insurance do not make any sense at all. If the partners have their own health insurance already, getting married would not change that. They can always carry their own individual health insurance. If someone gave you being unable to add the partner as a reason to continue co-habiting, the issue was clearly something else. Think about what you are saying.

Nov 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLee

"Enough already of the anti-gay hate. It's archaic, ignorant, and very cruel." God defined marriage as between one man and one woman. So, I suppose, Tony Marcie, you are indirectly referring to God in the latter part of your comment. No one is claiming to hate gays, just homosexuality. IT IS A SIN, plain and simple. The Bible teaches us to LOVE GOD and HATE SIN, maybe that seems "archaic, ignorant and very cruel" to you also, but God said it so argue with Him.

Nov 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

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