Friday, January 31, 2014

Rethinking the church's civic role in marriage

We have an interesting situation facing our culture (by which I mean, the American culture): for the first time in history, the definition of "marriage" is vastly different in the Christian church from what the state (by which I mean, the civic governing authorities) says that it is.


Historically, the Christian church has defined marriage as a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman, bound together before God and committed to maintaining God's standards for what constitutes that marriage. Marriage was given to us by God for particular purposes: for the mutual help of the husband and wife, for having children, and for prevention of sin. Marriage is not the same as other relationships that the Bible describes as "lawful" (such as friendships, parent/child, work-oriented relationships, etc.) or that the Bible declares to be "unlawful" (including same-sex relationships, marital affairs, and others). Some may disagree with whether this position is "right" (and obviously some do), but whether that has historically been the church's position is indisputable.

Also historically (and continuing to the present), the church and state have held hands in a peculiar practice. In a tacit acknowledgement of the origins of marriage and the church's right and authority in the institution of marriage, the common practice and legal allowance is that pastors, priests, rectors, and ministers are allowed to function as civil magistrates when it comes to marriage. How so? They are recognized as a legitimate authority who may sign the marriage license. Whereas a pastor or priest asserting civic authority in any other realm would be laughed at, in this one sphere they are granted the strange status of being both ecclesiastical and civil authority.

More recently, and increasingly across the country, individual states are passing laws that define marriage more broadly, including the allowance of same-sex couples to marry with the same recognition of their marriages as those whose marriages would fit the definition of the historical church above. There are different arguments for why this is being done, but the underlying rationale pins on two presuppositions: (a) that homosexual practices are not morally or ethically wrong, and any individual or institution that claims otherwise is bigoted and misled; and (b) that practicing homosexuals deserve the same rights civically as any other citizen. Thus, they conclude, any restriction to the civic rights afforded by marriage on the basis of some moral or ethical restriction is wrong, and should be removed.

What's my point

The second premise above is not the focus of my post today, and frankly I wouldn't dispute it (as I've blogged about already; see "Inconsistency in opposition to civil unions"). Really, the first premise is not the focus of my post either, except to say that it finds little to no support in the Bible when any orthodox hermeneutic is applied, and therefore is not a claim that should carry much authority with Christians.

Rather, my focus is on the sticky wicket that this change in status quo presents to the church. To get there, I'll need to unpack the implications of the American pastor's strange function as quasi-magistrate a bit further.

A marriage in a church is recognized by the state as legitimate and licit, because the pastor is given that right to officiate both the ecclesiastical and the civil aspects of the marriage. Likewise—by default—a marriage that is recognized as legitimate and licit by the state is presently assumed also to be legitimate and licit in the eyes of the church. Which is to say, if two Christians choose to elope rather than hold a traditional wedding, and they employ the services of a justice of the peace to officiate, then they can safely presume that their church will recognize their marriage as a legitimate one. There is something of a Material Equivalence at work: in either case, the circumstances of a marriage presided-over by a recognized officiant meets both the necessary and sufficient conditions for the marriage to be deemed licit by both the church and the state.

With the recent changes to the laws of many states (and the likely inevitability of the same in most, if not all, of the remaining states), however, this logic fails. There may be sufficient conditions on both sides, but now there is a missing necessary condition for the church: the certainty that particular requirements are met to qualify the marriage as biblically licit. Without this certainty, the church can no longer be assured that a marriage approved by the state is a truly licit marriage ecclesiastically.

To be sure, this is not, in itself, exactly new; with the proliferation of "no-fault divorce" in the 1970s, this certainty dissolved. It has long been possible for a husband to abandon his wife, divorce her, and elope with his mistress—and for that marriage to be presumed to be a legitimate, biblically-licit marriage. Frankly, we should have acted on the implications of this decades ago, and our inattention has caught up with us.

Some solutions

How we got to where we are is a long and winding path, and includes many concessions and missed opportunities through the last many years. One could argue that this was an inevitable conclusion for our culture to reach, and they may be right. But here we are nevertheless, and though hindsight may be 20/20, foresight and wisdom for the days ahead is what we need.

We do seem finally to have come to a fork in the road, and I believe it is time for the church and the state to quit holding hands. The Material Equivalence that was the logical basis of our implicit acknowledgement of civilly-officiated marriages has been dissolving for years, and is no longer present in any reliable form. The function of the pastor as civil magistrate when it comes to marriage needs to come to an end.

This is actually the way it is in most other countries in the world! If you want to have the civic benefits of some sort of formalized union, you apply to the state for a marriage license and have the (regular) magistrate sign it. If you want the blessings of the church on your marriage, you see your pastor or priest and he officiates. And if you want both, then you must follow through with both.

A long-time friend of mine who is a political consultant in South Carolina recently blogged about this topic as well. In an interaction that followed, I asked him whether he thought the best route to sever this relationship between pastors and the state was a political one: passage of a bill that would revoke the pastor's right to sign marriage licenses. He said that we're way to far gone for that: "It's in state law in a thousand places."

Thus, it seems like the best route is for pastors and churches to voluntarily lay down our "right" to this role in civic society. To do this, we would need to amend our church constitution (in the PCA, this would mean an amendment to the Book of Church Order) so that this is plainly stated.

(I actually presented a proposal for this to my presbytery recently, and it was voted down—but mainly because the wording of it was not as clear as it needed to be. I'll keep working.)

Tricky factors

Moving in this direction will present a few bumps along the way. As I list these, I confess I'm not sure entirely of the implications of them, but I do recognize that they are there.

For one, it raises the possibility that some Christians may seek a marriage in the church but not with the state. One friend wondered about whether this would be a way for senior citizens to avoid any implications for their Social Security benefits, for example. I suppose that's possible, but I think it would be difficult to make a solid case for why this would be wrong for Christians to do.

It also raises the question about marriage as a creation-wide institution, and that's a good point. We don't see marriage as a sacrament, as it is not for believers only. Nevertheless, many pastors would seriously think twice about officiating a "church wedding" between two non-Christians as if their marriage was no different than that of two Christians. And I actually think this distinction is helpful precisely because it draws a clearer distinction between what is present in a Christian marriage versus a non-Christian one.

Other questions raised concerned how the church would deal with marriages not conducted by the church (or, for that matter, conducted in churches of a different denomination). Would none of them be recognized? How would the pastor and leadership deal with a civic union/marriage that they didn't believe was legitimate ecclesiastically? These are great questions, but not without some precedent. By analogy (and I want to be careful to distinguish this as an analogy, because we don't view marriage in the same way that we do baptism), when someone presents himself or herself for membership and the question of their baptism from another tradition—Roman Catholicism, say—comes up, then the Session must decide whether they will acknowledge that baptism as legitimate or whether they will require them to be re-baptized. To some degree, we take these case-by-base, but in another sense then patterns and precedents are established. I think marriage would be much the same.

I know there are other questions I haven't thought of. What do YOU think? What tricky factors do you see, that I haven't listed?


  1. Ed, good blog. I haven't thought along these lines at all other than to foresee, with the current direction of our nation, that the church (those holding to the historic view of marriage) will soon have to stop doing all marriages to avoid charges of discrimination for refusing to marry gay couples. Proposing the state "take away" our rights to officiate these would also do it I suppose but at some point (definitely for membership) the same issue and threat is going to arise as we must make judgment based on openly acknowledge sexual behavior. If promoting what you propose would move us out of the line of fire on this, I'm for it. I just don't think it will ultimately do that. P.S. This is Ben Ritz (just noticed my google set to "unknown").

  2. Thanks Ben—good thoughts. I think for some this will be a “distinction without difference” and perhaps wouldn’t provide the cover we want/need. But I don’t think we do it primarily for the political cover; I think we do it for the principle of it, and because it opens the door for better pastoral care within marriages.