Since the recent vote in North Carolina to approve a constitutional ammendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and President Obama’s subsequent “coming out” in support of allowing gay marriage, there have been countless blog posts, Twitter fights, and Facebook arguments about the topic as it’s been brought to the forefront of our national conversation again.
I started a bit of a Facebook ruckus myself last week with an admittedly flippant comment about the wasted time and energy of North Carolina’s Christian voters in passing such an amendment. While my comment may have been worded in haste, my belief behind it is something I have been very thoughtful in coming to. I do believe that the church does more harm than good when we spend time, energy, and resources fighting a cultural battle about the legal definition of marriage. As a result, that time, energy, and those resources are redirected away from our primary mission of making disciples and doing the things that Jesus did.
I have been hesitant to engage this conversation here on Simply Disciple, not being sure if it really fit into the type of content I create here. I decided to offer some thoughts here with the hope that my small voice can add to the growing number of voices who are calling us back to a laser focus on healing the world through making disciples, not through legislation.
I’m going to state my conclusion up front, and then offer some insight into how I’ve come to this belief:
Here in the States, the legal and religious components of marriage have been so closely intertwined over the last 100 years, that we have a very difficult time thinking of them as separate. I think the church would see great benefits from separating itself from the legal component of marriage. In doing so, the state would be free to grant equal rights where it deems necessary, and the church would be free to define marriage as it sees fit.
Now, to understand what I’m saying here, we have to take a quick look at the development of marriage as a legal contract in our country. When Sara and I got married, as anybody who has been married here knows, we had to apply to the state for a marriage license. For a fee, the state agreed to recognize the partnership that Sara and I were entering into as a legal contract, with the obligations and benefits that come with that particular legal agreement. Oddly enough, for a church culture that appeals to the separation of church and state at every turn when the church feels as though it is being infringed upon, the person whose signature turned that license from a piece of paper to a legal agreement was our pastors’, acting on behalf of and with the authority of the state.
Read that paragraph again and see if it seems as odd to you as it does to me.
It hasn’t always been that way.
In America, up until the mid 19th century, common law marriages were the norm. If a couple co-habitated and indicated that they were married, well, that was sufficient to be considered a married couple. Any couple who desired a church wedding or ceremony of some kind could approach their faith community and participate in a wedding ceremony and celebration, but doing so was certainly not required. Many marriages were recorded simply in the family Bible.
Around the end of that century, the state stopped recognizing common law marriage and began to require a marriage license or certificate to be recognized as a valid marriage.
Imagine that for a moment; if during that time, Sara and I had been married by our faith community, which recognized us as a married couple, and then suddenly the state told us that we were no longer married, and needed to get official recognition by the government in order to be married. You would think there would be outrage at the idea of the state telling married couples that their religious community sanctifying their marriage wasn’t valid. I would need to dig a bit deeper into that history to know for sure, but I’m not aware of any such outrage at state intrusion into a religious covenant.
By the earlier 1900′s, a majority of states used the marriage license as a mechanism to prohibit inter-racial marriages. Several states used marriage licenses as a way to prohibit anybody that the state deemed as unfit from marrying. Several others made it difficult to obtain a marriage license if a person had previously been divorced. The government’s entrance into the marriage business then, was conceived of as a way to discriminate, and to tell individuals, as well as churches, who could and could not be married.
As racial attitudes shifted in the States, so did the purpose of a marriage license. The purpose of the legal requirement moved towards being an efficient way to identify familial relationships for the purpose of making medical decisions, determining dependents for health insurance purposes, and for distributing benefits such a Social Security survivor benefits.
Today, the marriage license fulfills essentially the same purpose, though it’s usefulness for the above purposes is questionable as most adult Americans have either never been married, are divorced, or are remarried, often rendering a simple marriage license insufficient in determining how families are related to each other.
You see, the purpose of the marriage license has never been to define the religious parameters of marriage. Rather, it has served various purposes ranging from outright discrimination, to a useful way to identify families, to today a not so efficient means of distributing benefits as well as a revenue source for the states that issue them.
A marriage license does not indicate a religious marriage at all. Rather, it is a mechanism for a government to exert control over who can enter into a particular civil contract, and to then keep track of those contracts. Marriage in the States went off the rails when we allowed the state to use the word “marriage” to define that contract. As a result, we don’t seem to have the ability to see the distinction between what the state calls marriage and what Scripture calls marriage. For us today, they are one and the same. That is a problem for both the church and the state.
The church feels as though they can’t remain silent while the state makes changes to the terms of a marriage license lest they allow the state to “redefine” marriage. The state feels as though it can’t open up the legal component of marriage to two consenting same gender adults lest they incur the wrath of the church.
What a horribly unimaginative situation we have created for ourselves.
What we need is the ability to view the legal contract of marriage as distinct from the religious covenant of marriage. One problem in being able to do that is the fact that the state uses the word marriage to identify this particular civil legal contract. Marriage is not being redefined today, marriage was redefined when the church remained silent while the state borrowed the word “marriage” to define a legal contract originally designed to discriminate against minorities.
So, what do we do now?
This may be overly simplistic, I’ll admit that, but here’s what I would personally love to see happen:
- The state gets out of the marriage business and acknowledges that government has no place using the term “marriage” to define a legal contract.
- It seems clear that we’re too far down the road of needing to legally prove our partnerships to insurance companies, educational institutions, employers, and many other agencies that some civil contract is still necessary. Let’s get rid of “marriage licenses” for everybody, and allow the state to issue civil unions to everybody who wants to enter into a partnership with legal standing and the benefits that come with that.
- Then, allow churches and religions to each determine, based on their views and interpretations of their scriptures, what marriage is for their faith community. No church could be forced by the state to go against their conscience when it comes to marriage, because marriage will be strictly a religious covenant, not a legal contract. With the great diversity of viewpoints on marriage within the religious community, couples of any orientation who desire a religious marriage will certainly be able to find a church who will bless their partnership and perform a marriage ceremony
In the meantime, how might churches and ministers help to demonstrate the distinction between the religious covenant of marriage and the legal contract currently called marriage?
- As a minister, consider not signing marriage licenses. Ask any couple who wants you to perform their wedding to obtain their marriage license and have it signed and validated by a justice of the peace a few days prior to their wedding ceremony.
- If you are signing a marriage license, consider making it a point to differentiate between the religious and legal components of the wedding ceremony. When the couple is ready to sign the license, take a moment to explain to the congregation what is happening; that the couple is taking care of the legal component of their union, which the church sees as distinct from the religious covenant they are all there to bless. Consider even walking to the back of the room for this portion of the ceremony to draw a clear distinction.
What do you think about what I’ve just written? Am I way off base, or do you see validity in what I’m saying?
What additional ideas do you have that would help all of us to differentiate between the state role in partnerships and the religious covenant of marriage?
How did the church let the state take on the role of determining what marriage is and who can get married? Does that seem like a major failure to anybody but me?
Jump into the comments below with your thoughts!