Officiating of Contracts and Blessings of Covenants

The October 2012 issue of The Lutheran, the news magazine of the ELCA, contains an article, “Lutherans & Politics,” by Darrel H. Jodock, appearing on pp. 20–25. On p. 24, the article states:

In matters of public policy, the distinction between the two governances means the church is not to insist that its priorities be made into law. In a religiously pluralistic society, what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.

For example, Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state. When a pastor officiates, he or she does so because of state authorization. In matters of marriage, therefore, the primary question for voters should not be what the Christian view of marriage is but what serves the interests of the community as a whole.

The state has a strong interest in stable families because abuse and neglect are costly. But the question of what compelling interest the state has in reserving marriage for heterosexuals deserves careful discussion. People need to decide what is good for society and vote accordingly, but the decision should not be made on the basis only of what Christianity favors. The state needs to protect non-Christians as well as Christians.

This contains several notions that seem odd, to say the least.

  • “… what the church considers right behavior for its members may or may not serve the common good.”
  • “… Christians bless marriages, but marriage itself is a matter of the state.”

These seem to be the two most significant and problematic statements in this portion of the article. They raise a number of questions.

  • What right behaviors does the Church commend that do not serve the common good?
  • How does one square the notion that “marriage itself is a matter of the state” with the liturgical declaration that “the scriptures teach us that the bond and covenant of marriage is a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one, an image of the union of Christ and the church” (Pastoral Care, p. 288)?

On the first point, it seems that if the Church commends behaviors that accord with God’s Word, they would, by their very nature, serve the common good—at least as perceived from the vantage of the kingdom of God. It is hard to see that another perspective should matter to the Church.

On the second point, the quotation does—and rightly so—distinguish officiating and blessing. The pastor’s signature on the marriage license is the act that officiates, while the pastor’s presiding over the liturgical celebration is the act that leads the Church in blessing. Pastors would not need to serve as arms of the state, officiating at the signing of contracts, in order for them to preside over blessings of covenants in worship. The two are absolutely separable and it may be argued that to separate them would serve the common good by making clear the profound and ultimate difference between the two acts and the two items, namely contracts and covenants.

It seems to me that the Church rightly blesses marriages that, as the liturgy states, are “a gift of God in which a man and a woman are joined as one.” Such blessed unions are “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church.” Other contractual relationships, recognized as legal contracts by the state, which do not entail “a man and a woman … joined as one,” would not be “image[ s ] of the union of Christ and the church,” and would not, then, be blessed.