by Rev. Jim Barnes, EA National Minister
She found our church in a phone book and showed up on a weekday with her tape measure. When I asked the young woman what she needed, her answer was, “I’m looking for a church to get married in and I want to measure your building to make sure my wedding party will fit up front.” I then attempted to redirect her into a discussion of what it would mean to have a Christian marriage ceremony in our church, but she was firmly resolved to go into the sanctuary and take measurements – so I let her go. After the bride-to-be had completed her analysis of our building, I talked with her for a while, explaining what our church believed about the nature of Christian marriage. I then handed her a copy of our church’s wedding policy, told her to read it with her fiancé and then call back if she wanted to move forward. I didn’t hear from her again, nor did I hear from any lawyers complaining that our wedding policy discriminated against people who wanted to marry in our church who were not prepared to affirm our statement of faith, attend worship regularly and agree to practice abstinence and stop living together if they were already cohabiting prior to the wedding day (which were all written requirements for a ceremony in our church).
My assumption is that either our church didn’t measure up, or, the religious convictions regarding faith, worship and sexual behavior expressed in our wedding policy were not acceptable to this particular bride and groom. Regardless of their reasons for not pursuing a ceremony at our church, at least this couple respected our right to have policies based on our religious convictions which they would need to abide by if they chose to have their ceremony in our building. I wonder if their response would have been the same these days?
In recent years, florists, bakers, photographers and the proprietors of wedding chapels and other venues have been challenged and in some cases sued if they refuse to provide services that violate their deeply held religious convictions regarding the nature of marriage. While some believe churches would be exempt from such attacks if our society changes its definition of marriage, the question is, will the right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution be able to hold up against the newly perceived rights people believe they have to unrestrained sexual expression and the practice of gender fluidity?
I recently attended a meeting of the Common Ground Christian Network on the theme of religious freedom. A featured speaker was constitutional and church law attorney Scott Ward who suggested that many churches are unprepared for what may be coming if the Supreme Court rules against natural marriage later this year. Ward stated, “The best way to protect your rights will be to clearly articulate your religious identity in all important organizational documents.”
Since most of the churches affiliated with the Evangelical Association are independent, the question I would ask is, “Has your church taken the time to clearly articulate what it believes about Christian doctrine and morality?” If your church’s right to the free exercise of religion eventually does come under attack, it will be very important that con-gregations have taken the time to state what their religious convictions are and why they hold those convictions.
Furthermore, if your congregation is part of the Evangelical Association, you need to make sure your affiliation is current since each year a church belongs to the EA is another year that they have gone “on the record” as affirming the religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Since the EA keeps a record of signed renewal forms, we have the paper trail your church might need at some point to prove your position on these matters.
Back when the congregation I served created their first written wedding policy nearly fifteen years ago, we never anticipated the changes to the definition of marriage that would happen in our society just a decade later. At the time, some in our church even thought we were putting things in writing that were so obvious that we were actually being overly cautious. In hindsight, it’s clear that in order to adequately articulate the beliefs of an orthodox, evangelical church, that policy probably needs a few more paragraphs!
The Evangelical Association has a number of resources to help churches strengthen the biblical definition of marriage (Genesis 2:18-24; Matthew 19:4-6) in their church constitutions and marriage policies along with a number of legal opinions from various sources on what churches should do to strengthen the biblical definition of Christian marriage. Contact the National Minister’s Office to order such resources.
Watch the Webinar Video “Challenges to Religious Liberty: Practical Tips to Articulate Your Ministry’s Identity and Strengthen Your Legal Rights” sponsored by Common Ground Christian Network of which the Evangelical Association is a member.
One way to strengthen the doctrine of Biblical marriage in a local church to be affiliated with a national network which holds such views. If you or your congregation has not joined the Evangelical Association, this might be the right time to do so. Check out what the next steps for affiliation might be.