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When faith and work are in conflict; the Saskatchewan case

January 14, 2011 No Comment

by Edward Kettner

You likely heard (or read) that the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals denied the appeal of a marriage commissioner in Saskatchewan, so that he could refuse to marry homosexual couples on the grounds that his religious beliefs forbid him to do so. This pointedly raises the question for Christians, “What does a believer do when his or her job responsibilities conflict with their faith?”

The law of God clearly says that marriage is between one man and one woman in a lifelong union. “Same-sex marriage” is thus an oxymoron. But the courts of Canada, ignoring the fact that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares Canada is founded on the principles of “the supremacy of God and the rule of law,” have seen fit to institute this form of union. This puts marriage commissioners in a very awkward dilemma. While the clergy (or equivalent) of various religious bodies are still free to marry only those whom they see fit (as has always been the case), at the same time they act for the state by signing the marriage licenses, marriage commissioners act solely for the state as they conduct their business, and thus do not have the freedom, according to the courts, to make a decision as to whom they marry or don’t marry. They may deny people marriage only when the law clearly forbids it (cases of incest, for example).

Scripture tells us that the governing authorities are instituted by God (Rom.13:1), and Christians are to obey them. But we also recognize that sometimes these authorities either restrict legitimate freedoms or may even make provisions for activity which we consider sin. Abortion is wrong, but our country allows it. But we are moving precariously close to a time when medical personnel in their preparation may be required to sin against their consciences by having to witness or participate in abortions. Thus, far freedom of conscience is allowed, but how much longer?

We also recognize that divorce is against the will of God, with the exception of adultery and desertion (which of course themselves are sin), but judges are required to grant divorces according to civil law, which allows numerous other reasons. Here we have to distinguish between the civil act of marriage, which is carried out by the state, and the demands God puts upon His people, which are much stricter. Therefore a Christian judge, acting on behalf of the state, may grant a civil divorce while at the same time deploring the state of our society in which divorces have become commonplace.

For the marriage commissioner, who now is mandated to marry couples even though their marriage violates the laws of nature created by God and the institution of marriage as God has created it (Gen. 2:24, and reaffirmed by Jesus in Matt. 19:5 and Mark 10:7), the dilemma, it seems, is whether to become complicit in others’ sin by performing the service, or by refusing, to compromise God’s law by resigning as marriage commissioner. One could, I suppose, act according to one’s conscience and state you will only marry a male and a female and not two of the same sex, but one will then not only lose one’s license to perform marriages but also leave oneself subject to the province’s human rights commission.

We are told it is better to suffer for doing good than for doing evil (1 Peter 3:17). There are times in this world when Christians must take a stand and suffer if the alternative means sinning and thereby dishonouring God. The state may be wrong in requiring marriage commissioners to act against their consciences and against God’s clear Word, but when it happens, Christians who hold that office must then decide whether to give in to the demands of the state or to vacate the office given them by the state. As hard as it may be, vacating the office seems the only God-pleasing alternative.

Rev. Dr. Edward Kettner is professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton.