Should Pastors be Required to Marry All?

Terry Mahoney
July 30 2020


A friend of mine, an ordained minister, has been fighting his provincial government for more than two years now on an issue he and many others consider the trampling of his “religious rights”.

The issue stems from the revoking of his license as a marriage commissioner in his home province due to his refusal to serve same sex couples, in that capacity.

He has the backing of his church. And from recent posts on social media, where he has been generously sharing his case and circumstances, it is clear a significant number of other churches and scores of Christians support him as well.

Understandably, this matter has also garnered the attention of other ministers across the country and, of course, the opposition.

I think they are all half-wrong … but let me explain.

Civil Marriage Ceremonies

I am not saying they are necessarily wrong in their views on the issue of same sex marriage. That is a matter of belief, dogma and conscience and we are, thus far anyway, entitled to our private opinions, but I do submit he and his supporters are wrong in the bigger question of his “right” to refuse service.

My reasoning behind that statement is very simple. When we, of the church, apply for and receive a government license to act on behalf of the state as its duly recognized representative, which in this case means in the official capacity of a marriage commissioner, we are bound legally and as a matter of principle to conduct ourselves professionally and faithfully respecting, even upholding, all applicable laws.

To my mind this precludes us from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and thereby refusing to serve as a provincially licensed officiant when requested to perform a same-sex civil marriage ceremony.

Now, please note, I said civil marriage ceremony. Which brings me to my main point.

Civil & Religious Marriage

There are and have been, for centuries, two separate and distinct marriages, if I may say it in that awkward manner.  There is civil marriage and religious marriage. For many years now, we have tried to blend the two, and that is what is getting us into trouble.

Civil marriage grants the legal protections and privileges of the law governing marriage such as tax implications, pensions, health care structures, and is a precursor to the rights held in abeyance governing divorce, separation, beneficiaries & child custody.  

In this regard, the government claims sole jurisdiction and has the right to insist upon compliance with regard to the requirements predicating a marriage being declared legally binding in the eyes of the law.

Religious marriage has no such civil authority in itself. It grants the couple legitimacy in the eyes of the church on matters pertaining to moral and doctrinal issues such as indissolubility and innocence before God insofar as sexual conduct is concerned.

In this respect, the church claims sole jurisdiction over the requirements for a marriage to be recognized as legitimately Christian and binding in accordance with its understanding of divine law.

These are two very different and very important distinctions, especially in a predominately secular culture such as ours.

This fact, as we know, presents a major problem; the government, supported by law and the courts, is clearly and inarguably the authority when it comes to determining and declaring what constitutes a legally binding civil marriage and how, or if, it can be dissolved.

It is logical, then, that the church should be the sole authority in determining the requirements for legitimatization of a spiritually binding Christian marriage. 

It is true, and perhaps unfortunate, that for some Christians (Evangelicals in particular) there is no single or central authority that stands unchallenged as to how a Christian marriage becomes legitimate and binding in the eyes of the Divine, and the church, and how, or if, it can be dissolved or “loosed”.

That, however, should not affect the principle of separating the responsibilities and authority of the church vs. the state with regard to marriage.

Half-right & Half Wrong

As to my friends dilemma, I would say he is half right:  He is right that the state should have no power of compulsion over the church to declare any marriage, same sex or not, as valid in the eyes of God and the church.

However, I say he is also half-wrong as the church must have no power of compulsion over the state to declare a marriage civilly or legally binding or not.

Giving either institution power to “bind and loose”, on earth and in heaven, has already been tried and history proved it to be very problematic indeed.

Law governing civil marriage is completely within the purview of Caesar. It should stay that way, in part because it is clear a purely secular government in a multi-everything society must support and serve equitably, if not equally, every religious, agnostic or atheistic world view.

Religious marriage is solely within the purview of the church, (synagogue, mosque, temple etc.) and it should stay that way to protect the church from being forced, coerced and even punished by the state for not declaring and legitimizing any and every union as equally legitimate or sacred as it were.

The cherished notion of “Separation of Church and State”, protects both institutions, and we the people, from theocracy or autocracy or aristocracy and more. This is largely what makes democracy possible.

Therefore, what Divine wisdom has rent asunder let no one join again. The religious and the secular should not be in bed together, so to speak. That would be, to my mind, a most “unholy marriage.”

Another Way?

So, my bottom line?  My friend should be grateful he has been relieved of the burden of his bondage to the secular state and concentrate on his privileged position of service to God and His church. 

I suggest that when asked to marry people who meet the criteria, as established by the church, for valid Christian holy matrimony, he should first direct them to get the proper marriage license and submit to the most basic requirements for being declared civilly married at the nearest Justice of the Peace. That gives Caesar his due and affords the couple the legal rights and responsibilities as determined and meted out by the state.

The happy couple can then joyfully, and hopefully without undue controversy, engage in the sacred ceremony of receiving a blessing upon the union in the name of God, sacramentum, which, in our western Christian tradition can generally only be performed by an ordained priest or minister in accord with the practice of their particular denomination.

In summary, a marriage commissioner, who sought license by the state for that purpose, to be an agent of the state, cannot, and should not, refuse to marry, civilly, a legally qualified couple. And generally speaking, same sex couples have the legally protected right to marry in Canada.

As stated at the outset of this polemic, I believe my friend’s problem stems from the fact the church has attempted to blend civil marriage with the Christian rite of matrimony, when they are, in fact, distinctly different.

I am of the opinion that my friend, and all other Christian marriage commissioners, should turn in their provincial licenses and then, being relieved of the legal, social and political controversy, concentrate, now relatively unfettered, on the sacred aspect of holy matrimony.

“A man cannot serve two masters” …. much more the church.


Terry Mahoney is a Chaplain with Corporate Chaplains. To read more blog posts from our Chaplains, you can visit our Corportate Chaplains page.

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