Should a pastor be concerned about being forced to officiate a same-sex marriage? Will a church be required to host gay weddings or hire gay employees? Do we need to protect our pastors and churches from lawsuits related to their biblical convictions about sexuality and marriage?
The ink was not dry on the recent Constitutional redefinition of marriage before pastors started asking these important questions. Shepherds wisely want to protect their flocks and families. Although leaders don’t need to pick a fight, neither do they need to retreat from one.
To protect your ministry from litigation or intimidation, your church needs to be prepared in these four areas:
1. Your Statement of Faith About Marriage & Sexuality
Make your doctrine and policies official in your church by updating your statement of faith to specify what your church believes about marriage, gender, and sexuality. Here is a recent sample from a local church:
Marriage is a sacred institution ordained by God. Marriage is always a three-way relationship involving man*, woman*, and God. It should never be entered into lightly or superficially… “Man” and “woman” as used in this document refers to the condition of being male or female, which is determined by a person’s chromosomes, and is identified at birth by a person’s anatomy (sample from a local church).
A statement of faith does not exhaust the extent of your beliefs because only the Bible can do that. It does clarify your congregation’s interpretation of it.
2. Your Expectations for Members and Employees
Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or age. Religious organizations may consider an applicant’s religious beliefs in hiring and firing under a doctrine known as the “ministerial exception.” At a minimum, a church should require all employees to sign a statement affirming your statement of belief and/or employee manual.
Each member and each employee of **** Church is expected to maintain a lifestyle that is consistent with biblical teachings. The Church reserves unto itself the right and responsibility to interpret the scripture, as led by the Holy Spirit, in all such matters. Examples of unacceptable lifestyles include, but are not limited to, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, pre-marital sex or extramarital sex, cohabitation apart from the marriage relationship, and homosexuality.
Employees exhibiting unacceptable behavior shall be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal as provided for in the personnel policy of this Church.
Members also should understand that they are agreeing to a statement of faith when they join your church. It would be wise to have them formalize their membership requests with their own signatures.
3. Your Facilities and Wedding Policy Manuals
Non-discrimination ordinances are commonly being written into places of public accommodation. The law still recognizes the difference between a place of public worship and place of public accommodation. Don’t let society determine what your ministry options are.
A simple facility use policy should state that your church will restrict the use of the facility to events that are consistent with the church’s beliefs. One common over-reaction would be to prohibit all outside groups from using your facility, thus limiting the church from its ability to serve the community.
The church may decline to make its facilities or ministers available for any wedding if it is determined that one or both of the parties are not biblically and/or legally qualified to marry. Such determinations may be made by the pastor, subject to the direction of the church.
Church buildings are private property and are clearly subject to First Amendment protections to their religious beliefs.
4. Your Pastor’s Rights and Responsibilities
Will a pastor be forced to officiate a same sex wedding?
Legal experts say this is not an immediate threat to pastors. For years pastors have said “no” to couples whom we discerned to be incompatible. Current law does not force ministers to marry anyone they do not want to marry.
I am authorized by the state to perform weddings, but not compelled by the state to perform any weddings. I am not an agent of the state, I am a servant of the church. Just because I have a state license to drive does not mean the state can force me to drive.
The Bottom Line
It would be wise to tie every event, employee, and policy to the mission and doctrine of your church. You can also get a free legal guide to protecting your church from The Alliance for Defending Freedom.
Speak up for your faith, your church, yourself, and your children. Most of all, fight for healthy marriages. This is our calling and our privilege.