With all the talk lately about the SCOTUS decisions regarding Prop 8 and DOMA, it has me thinking about the Church’s relationship to the State in regard to weddings. When I perform a wedding ceremony in the state of Pennsylvania, I am acting in part as an agent for that state. I am acting in some sense as a representative of the state as I formalize the marriage of these two people. This can be a complicated arrangement because it seems to me there are three things we’re looking at when we talk about marriage and the wedding ceremony.
A Theological Viewpoint:
A convincing historical argument can be made that it was Jewish and Christian morality, deriving from Old Testament law, that pushed society toward monogamy between one man and woman. From our perspective, marriage is ordained by God from the beginning, and human kind has always had a propensity to move toward sexual expressions that violate this principle. Marriage is not simply a right granted when people feel romantic love toward one another. It is a covenant promise made by a man and a woman before the Creator God, promising to live in union with one another, one man and one woman forever, emulating the oneness of the Triune God.
In some sense, marriage is a sacrament, not in the Roman Catholic way of viewing sacraments, but that the marriage union is an outward, physical sign of an inward, spiritual reality: two becoming one flesh. That physical/spiritual union is complete not when the preacher pronounces it so, or when the state issues a license, but during the sex act. Sex is the physical act that signifies spiritual union in covenant relationship. This is why, historically, a marriage that hasn’t been sexually consummated can be annulled. Without sex, the union is not complete.
Why do Christians get so uptight about sexual sin? It isn’t because we’re against the physical act, but because that act is deeply spiritual, and thus needs to be treated with respect and dignity. The creature emulates and lives in the image of the Creator, and the wedding ceremony is the time when the pledge is made by the couple to live in the physically and spiritually unified way to bring glory to our Creator, and to the benefit of themselves and society. The problem with much of the discussion going on right now in our country is that the right of marriage is mostly viewed as a right to marry someone for whom you feel positive emotions and sexual desire. From a Christian perspective, these reasons have little to do with the actual purpose of marriage which is to emulate the Triune God by the union of two who become one.
A Civil Viewpoint:
Somewhere along the line, it became advantageous for civil government to keep track of who was married. For the purposes of inheritance and taxes, the State wanted to legally recognize marriages. Rome was doing this before the rise of Christianity, but post-Constantine it became most expedient for the State to simply recognize the marriages officiated and approved by the Church. You then have the Church and State working together in this area with the State recognizing the Church’s role in determining what marriage is, while granting legal protections and regulations. Over time, the distinction has become blurred, particularly in the U. S., where cultural Christianity has been the norm. On the subject of marriage, I wonder if we have created a very entangled situation where it is difficult to see clearly what is the respective responsibility of each party. At least, this is how I understand it.
A Cultural Viewpoint:
What we have – after 1500 years of Church/State partnership – is a weird situation with a couple of different facets. First, there is an understanding in American cultural Christianity and Civil Religion that weddings are supposed to happen in a church, officiated by a minister. I officiated the wedding of a young couple two years ago. She grew up Catholic, and he had some interaction with an Evangelical youth group. Neither had what I would call a lively faith, but they wanted to be married in a church. Since the Catholic Church would not marry them, they went looking for a church and a pastor. They found us, liked the look of our sanctuary, and I happened to be the first pastor they found one Sunday morning after services.
Against my better judgment, I agreed to officiate their wedding. I naïvely thought that through the 8 weeks of counseling, I could perhaps have a spiritual impact on them and share the Gospel message. I was mistaken. They wanted to get married in a church because that’s the way it was supposed to be. That was it. I walked into the rehearsal and immediately overheard a woman saying, “I heard this preacher made them go through all sorts of rigamarole before he would marry them.” She was the mother of the groom. Apparently, my attempts to give good counsel and prepare them for a life together in the eyes of God were simply seen as hoops to be jumped through.
At the reception, I was seated at the table with the bride’s family. Her mother, who was a pleasure to talk with, thanked me for performing the ceremony. She wanted them to be married in a church because “that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” I came away from the entire episode feeling completely used. No one involved, as far as I could tell, cared the least little bit about what God has to say about the matter. It was just about getting what they wanted, and having the God stamp of approval during the ceremony.
That was the first and last time I will perform a ceremony for someone outside of the church I serve, or whom I do not know. Personally, I’m not in the wedding business. I’m in the shepherding business, and this includes helping couples under my care walk with Jesus Christ in marriage.
Observations and Questions:
Our culture has become accustomed to churches being the place where you get married, but we’ve lost the meaning of marriage. Being married in a church by a minister is a matter of custom, not religious belief. It is becoming increasingly rare to find a couple who understands that they are to faithfully follow Christ together.
Given that the State no longer recognizes the Church’s role in defining marriage, should the Church refuse to be the tool of the State in this area? If the State wants to ignore the Church, then let the State worry about the ceremonies that formalize legal unions. In the state of Pennsylvania, when I officiate a wedding, I fill out a three-part license: a notarized copy returned to the county Clerk of Courts, a copy given to the couple, and a copy kept for my records. In this way, I am actually working on behalf of the state, seeing to it that all the legal forms are properly processed. Do I really need to acting as an agent of Pennsylvania? Perhaps the State should take care of its own business instead of farming out the work to clergy.
Put another way, should the Church refuse to perform legal ceremonies, but instead perform only those rituals related to sealing a covenant relationship between a Christian man and a Christian woman in the eyes of God and fellow Christians? This is similar to how it works in many parts of Europe. The State defines what is a legal union for its own civil purposes, and the Church solemnizes marriages as spiritual covenants before God and His Church for Christians who desire to do so. Put bluntly, I don’t recognize the State’s authority to tell Christians what a marriage is. It is not government’s right to do so. For civil and legal reasons, the State does have the right to create legal contracts between parties, but this is profoundly different than a covenant promise made before God.
Separating the civil function of unions from the solemnization of Christian marriages would allow the Church to be the Church. We would have more freedom to speak clearly about what marriage is without being encumbered by what civil authorities or culture expects.
Disentanglement would allow us to speak more clearly on the issue of divorce. Legal divorce does not mean that a person is divorced in the eyes of God. We might have to make grace-filled accommodations in a messy and sinful world, and I’m not sure that scripture is completely clear on divorce as far as every potential scenario is concerned. However, what is clear is that marriage is intended for one man and one woman until death does them part.
We would reserve the right to expect that Christians have Christian marriages and vows. In fact, this might go a long way to helping sharpen the cultural aspect of the wedding ceremony. If a couple wants to be married in a church by a minister, they will be making a conscious decision to do so.
The separation of a religious ceremony from the cultural expectation gives us the opportunity to speak more clearly about what God says about marriage by not imposing a Christian worldview through law, but by explaining and living what we believe. There is an opportunity for distinct and clear Christian message here.
So, what do you think? Should Church and State be disentangled on the issue of marriage? What might it look like? What are some potential problems?