The War Over Marriage

So the debate about same-sex “marriage” rages on–both in the church and in the larger society.  Should same-sex marriage be legal, or illegal?  (Vermont vs. North Carolina?)  The battle lines have drawn up around two basic positions that, ironically, are the same in the church and the state: 1) yes, it should be legal for anyone to marry, or 2) no, marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman.

Despite all the recent legal and political wrangling, I think there is room for some fresh thinking around this divisive debate.  The question doesn’t have to be so binary, and in fact, this could be an opportunity for us Americans to rethink what marriage is and what role it plays in society and in the church.  Because so far, the arguments about marriage are strangely conflated: church = state; all or nothing.  And maybe that reflects our entangled model of church-state cooperation in marriage (that goes back way before the United States was formed!) which is headed for a train wreck (See Rod Dreher’s article about military chaplains!).

When I do a wedding for a couple, I not only celebrate the Christian ritual with them, but I also serve as a representative of my state in certifying that they have formed a legal marriage contract.  And frankly, I’ve never been terribly comfortable with that arrangement; I work for Jesus and not for the state.

So why not untangle the church and state on the issue of marriage?  Let the state do its thing, and allow churches to do their thing, irrespective of each other.

Caveat: Granted, the state has a vested interest in promoting intact families–ideally with a mom and a dad–where children are nurtured and stability is achieved.  Unstable families create lots of headaches for society and government, so our political leaders need to do their part to champion optimal families where virtue is encouraged and vice is suppressed.

But beyond that ideal, the state has no real stake in the religious definition of “marriage.”

Caveat: On the other hand, it is a slam dunk when the church examines the issue of marriage: there is absolutely nothing in Scripture or tradition that would endorse same-sex relationships (nor anything else but one-man-one-woman marriage, for that matter) in the church.  Period.  And those in the church who are pushing for a redefinition of marriage are free to start their own religion, separate from creedal Christianity.

So here’s a radical idea.  Let’s unsnarl the whole notion of civil-religious marriage and make two separate estates.  1) Legal Unions.  Allow people to form a legal contract with whomever they wish with a simple visit to the courthouse.  No religious overtones; just a contract.  2) Christian Marriage.  Allow churches to continue celebrating their sacrament/rites of marriage without outside interference.  Simple, right?

The fear for lots of Christians is that if we give up fighting for social righteousness (preserving the current model of marriage) then the church will eventually run afoul of the state–which will come to believe differently–and then be persecuted for its exclusivity.  And that’s probably true.  Sadly.  (See also Chad Hall’s thoughtful suggestion about marriage.)  But we must remember that the church of Jesus Christ and the United States are two different things.  And there may come a point when churches will have to cut themselves loose from the symbiotic relationship with the state and face the persecution that is already creeping around us.

God help us.

(Also check out Bethany Blankley’s interesting historical analysis.)


7 thoughts on “The War Over Marriage

  1. Thanks, Dave! I feel that the church in America is at a crossroads of sorts. The secular society has become more secular, so (unfortunately) at some point, we’re going to have some clashes…that is, IF we stick to our creed.

  2. Thanks for echoing the statements of some fellow Christians. It is good to know that its alright to be rational even in the face of complex, yet emotionally-charged situations.

  3. “So why not untangle the church and state on the issue of marriage? Let the state do its thing, and allow churches to do their thing, irrespective of each other.”

    That already happens.

    I will be getting married later this year. Our wedding will have no religious trappings or mentions of god. And it will be legal.

    You won’t be getting the word back, though. “Marriage” as a word and concept does not belong solely to one religion.

  4. When I broke up with my girl friend whom I had dated for 5 years, i was told that since we bought a house together and both our names were on the deed we would have had to go to divorce court if we had disagreed what to do with the house. In some ways the State considered us already married, although we had had no civil or religious ceremony. Scared the crap out of me.

    Both the Church and the State incentivize marriage for philisophical/political reasons – one based on belief in the words of the Bible and one based on the belief that stable, traditional marriage leads to stable, traditional society (which is likely the goal of the Bible too). I would also argue that both groups believe that stable, traditional also equates to manageable.

    Being a hopeless romantic, I find it fascinating that neither group, Church nor State, seems to concern itself with love as a factor. (not to say that you don’t council love, Ray, when you assist a couple with their marriage. But the discussion at a policy/philosphical level does not seem to address it) I’ve struggled to find love for long enough that I realize how rare and precious it is. And I’ve seen enough bad marriages and bad divorces to know that love needs to be an important factor in stable and traditional. So how do the Church and the State promote both love and stable and traditional, especially as society’s definition of love is growing?

    If a person finds love with another woman or another man, I don’t believe either the Church or State should have the right to deny that love, or demean the value of that relationship. Stable and traditional is nice, love is essential. But much harder to define, and far less manageable.

  5. Good grief, Heath, are you 16 years old, or something? You’re my oldest friend, so I’ll shoot straight with you, pardon the pun.

    Hormonal love (or simply “love,” as you call it) is a fantastically unstable and unreliable thing. Romantic love ebbs and flows like an unpredictable river. In order for it to endure, hormonal love must be welded to volitional love (the New Testament/Greek language has a separate word for this “love,” agape, instead of sexual love, eros) which chooses to respect and honor the other. Haven’t you ever heard the old Clint Black song? (“Love isn’t someplace that we fall; it’s something that we do.”) In my opinion, too many relationships are based on hormonal love; so when it dries up, so does the relationship. And I am a romantic; but a mature romantic. 🙂

    I also don’t know if the purpose of the Bible or Christianity is to promote stable families. That’s kind of a second- or third-tier concern (for the the nuclear family to be a little congregation). The purpose of the Christian family–like every other Christian thing–is to confess Jesus as Lord, to glorify God, to practice loving God and loving others, etc. Maybe that’s *religion’s* end, but not necessarily Christianity. I think there’s a difference.

    As for your last paragraph, I would agree on the state side. I tend to lean libertarian in my patriotism, so I think that people should basically do whatever they want to do (as long as it isn’t dangerous to others) without the state’s interference. And that’s a very broad principle, certainly including all first amendment rights. But I would quibble with your comment about the church denying or demeaning same-sex relationships. Who are you to declare what “the church” should or should not do? Heck, I’m a church employee, and I ask myself the same question: Who am I that I should dictate what should or should not go? You and I are just slobbish, narcissistic Americans who think we invented everything and can change whatever doesn’t mesh with our convictions. Such conceited creatures we are! But what if God is real? And what if the sexual ethics stated in the Bible and clarified throughout the history of the church are correct? Even though I may not like that sometimes God says “no,” I have come to the humble conclusion that 1) it really doesn’t matter what I think (hey, my thinking is corrupted by sin anyway) and 2) I should accept what has been revealed and pray for all people.

  6. Governments do not regulate other religious rituals or ceremonies — e.g. who can be baptized, or ordained, or take communion, or become a member of a congregation. But they must decide who can be legally married, because of the status, tax benefits and legal responsibilities that are extended only to married couples. Also, their criteria for eligibility for marriage must meet the requirements of state, province and federal constitutions. Religious institutions are free to design their own criteria, no matter how discriminatory. Often “church and state” have differing rules regarding who may marry. For example, the Roman Catholic church might prohibit the marriage of a paraplegic man because he could not engage in sexual intercourse and thus procreate. However, the state would have no reservations about providing a marriage license to the same individual. On the other hand, some religious groups can and do marry gay or lesbian couples who cannot obtain a marriage license from the state. These rituals are most frequently called “union ceremonies” or by some similar name.

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