A Good Question

I got this letter and thought I’d post it here with permission of the letter writer.

Hi Scot,

Say, got a question.

Recently a person inquired with me as to whether I’d perform what they called a “ceremony of commitment”.  These are two elderly people.  Because of medical insurance purposes, they can’t legally marry without the one spouse losing their insurance.  They want to live together in marriage and honor God with a ceremony, but they can’t legally do it.

What’s a pastor to do in a situation like this?  Do you have any advice?

As always, thanks, Christmas blessings,


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  • Feel very torn on this one: The question I have been asking in relation to DOMA and same-sex marriage, is why the government is involved with marriage. That puts me squarely saying go ahead and do this, because marriage belongs to the church not the government. This couple may end up being considered married by common law after a few years anyway, regardless of what the ceremony is called.

    My big “but” then is whether we have different standards based on convenience. This is really about convenience, saving money, and quality of life. Is that a very solid basis for determining what is right?

  • Robert

    Forget the state, marry them, but don’t register it. We’ve allowed the church to become an extension of the state, and this is the problem here.

  • Paul W

    @ 1 profanefaith

    I have a question- not a challenge- concerning the assumption that marriage belongs to the church rather than the government. On what basis do so many assume that the establishment of a marriage should be primarily considered an ecclessial issue?

    I’ve never seen anything approaching a theological argument or rationale for that stance. Perhaps you have (and I would love to know what it is) but for the life of me I can’t seem to figure out why churches are involved in weddings at all.

  • Bill

    A good marriage is a four-legged stool. It is a physical relationship, a spiritual relationship, a social-familial relationship and a contractual relationship.

    The church should be concerned with strengthening all four of these aspects of marriage, but has no legal authority to enforce the contractual side of marriage. The state does have the authority to protect the rights and property of the individuals getting married from exploitation and is able to enforce the mutual agreements that are part of marriage.

    One way a commitment ceremony can protect the contractual side of marriage where the state is not involved would be to require pre-nuptial agreements, with the faith community holding the couple accountable.

    A commitment ceremony that does not take into account the contractual side of marriage is not enough of a commitment.

  • Weddings are a sacrament more than a state function. God has ordained that man and woman should be together. And it is clear from scripture that it is to be monogamous and permanent. If the couple understand this (and their children are supportive) I would go ahead and do it. They are asking to be married in a way that is not recognized by the state, but still recognized by the church and God. That is perfectly reasonable.

  • JoeyS

    If you feel comfortable with them as a couple, marry them. The state waves no rights before God.

  • I’d like to offer a point for your consideration that has not yet been mentioned.

    Scripture commands us to obey any government that God has placed over us. We are given only one exception to that mandate, which is when the state commands us to do something contrary to the Word of our Lord. In that case, we are to obey God…and in so doing, be prepared to suffer the potential consequences.

    This question of marrying a couple to avoid negative financial consequences does not, IMHO, qualify us to ignore government. Therefore, as much as I understand the couple’s desire to avoid the government side of marriage — and agree that marriage should never have become a Church/State operation (but that’s a separate issue) — it would seem that this is not an option open for them or for us, when we consider the reason that has been offered.

  • DRT

    This case is a good example of why I like the Catholic idea of marriage. Most of the sacraments are performed by a priest, but in marriage the partners are the ministers of the sacrament. They marry each other. The RCC prefers a priest to be present, but it is not required.

    I say, let the people marry each other in secret. That practice is as old as the world!

  • Paul W. – In qualified agreement with you. A better way to say this is that I see more reason for the church to be involved than the state. It is not deeply theological, and not sure we have much to go on other than the Garden of Eden.

  • April

    What in the world have we come to??? So a couple is “afraid” of losing their medical benefits, etc., so they are willing to disobey God’s mandate to obey the authorities that He has placed over them (that includes the state the last time I checked)! Their decision completely leaves God out of the process. What might He want to teach them through their obedience?? We’re walking by sight yet again . . . too bad.

  • John W Frye

    This is a great case study on how we use the Bible. Is the Bible a manual with guidelines to answer this marital question? Or, does the Bible invite “theological discernment” within an arena of flexibility to apply *ad hoc* pastoral wisdom? May, at times, the biblical realities of commitment to marriage for the sake of honoring Christ and his Word override the legalities imposed by the state on marriage? Scot, as a pastor, I say to your friend, “Marry them.”

    I am surprised by those who easily toss marriage away from the church (Paul W #3) when the primary metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel and Christ’s relationship to the church is a marriage metaphor. Does the Bible state that the church conduct marriages? No directly. However, that argument from silence can not shout down the overwhelming place marriage has *in the eyes of God.*

  • Sherman Nobles

    Bill @4, I appreciate and agree with the 4-legged stool illustration, and recognize all 4 (spiritual, social, physical, and civil) as “important” but no 1 is necessary. With a little balance, one can sit on a 4-legged stool with one leg missing. For example, the “spiritual” leg is missing for many marriages that last their life-times.

    Concerning a couple cohabiting and considering themselves married, committed to each other but not married under civil law, the State does not forbid or declare such is not valid. In fact, many States maintain Common Law Marriage, which affirms that a couple is legally married if they have lived together for 7+ years.

    So if the couple does not believe that the civil contract is necessary for their marriage to survive, then that’s their choice. I’d gladly and joyfully perform their marriage ceremony, accept them in my fellowship, and affirm them being leaders in my fellowship, assuming they wanted to be and were otherwise “qualified”.

    Thanks for the analogy, it’s excellent!

  • #7 Michael Mills makes a noteworthy point.

    The OP does not disclose the details, but with consideration to the point of “elderly couple” it would be a natural assumption that some of the benefits the couple glean in “single” status might be “state” sponsored. Even if this is not the case, I’m sure there are benefits gleaned from being citizens of the USA the two enjoy. In both or either case, I’m not sure where we (as citizens of the US) have been granted the right to “opt in” or “opt out” of specific government regulation. The idea of trying to justify actions under the banner of God, so we might enjoy the benefits of both worlds seems a little unethical at best and blatantly hypocritical at worst.

  • Mike McLeod

    You all raise good points. Some of my questions include: (1)Are we being “deceptive” to insurance / medical companies in by doing this? (2) Does God care about how we work with/in State Government guidelines when it comes to marriage. (3) What precendent are we establishing by doing this? What is our criteria? Where do we cross the line and dishonor marriage? (4) What testimonial witness are we sending to younger people a ala marriage, in regards to the recent data on the societal decline of marriage? (5) How can we meet the compassion test (helping lonely people with companionship) and the ethical test?

  • Regarding 11, you are talking about marriage which is an imagery with quite a bit of biblical depth. 3 specifically seems to be referring to weddings. Not sure if that impacts how you see things.

  • The government does not require that anybody be married. It does confer certain benefits (and, ironically, inadvertantly imposes some penalties) on those marriages it recognizes. Those who wish to receive those legal benefits must be married in a way the government recognizes.

    The Scriptures do not, as far as I can tell, require that one’s marriage must be recognized as such by the government.

    In the case above, where the couple wanted to live together in marriage and honor God with a ceremony, for the reason described, I would have no problem recognizing their marriage, whether the State does or not. Marriage is instituted by God, an institution by which a man and a woman are joined together by God (Jesus spoke of it as “What God has joined together”). The State is merely in a position of recognizing or not recognizing it for the State’s own purposes.

  • Mike McLeod

    I am still wrestling with the “decpetion” issue. Do Christians have a moral obligation to be honest, fair, with agencies granting benefits (life insurance, medical)?

    I am also still wrestling with messages we are sending to young people. Can they just decided to live together and tell the church community that in “their-own-eyes” they are married?

    Finally, what’s church leadership board to do with this? Let’s say their Pastor wants to perform the “ceremony of commitment”, but the leadership board is divided about it. How does this get practically resolved?

  • John Frye #11, as usual, speaks words of sound wisdom.

  • Mike #17, I don’t see that any “deception” is involved. The couple has not decided to participate in the civil institution recognized by the state. Their situation in the eyes of the insurance company is no different than a couple that chooses to live together without any religious commitment.

  • Mike McLeod

    Chaplin Mike,#19, the deceptive is their strategy to not legalize their marriage to avoid losing the medical benefits, not in just wanting to live together honorablly before God. This is way to best the system. Maybe, insead of the word “deception”, we should use the word “wisdom”!

  • DRT

    Mike#17, the reason the issue is created is because of the legal oneness afforded to married couples under the law.

    If the deception part is an issue for you, call an insurance company and tell them that you are living in sin and get no benefit or protection from the government and ask if they think you should categorize yourself as married for insurance. Tell them, I really love her! I commit to her! They would tell you that you are not married in their eyes and you would be lying to them if you claimed you are married.

  • Don’t do it. They either want to be married or not. “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health”. if they can’t say those vows perhaps they should just stay good friends.

    Of course, if the state offered some sort of national health service, there wouldn’t be s problem!

    Also, is that the whole story, or are there some inheritance issues too?

  • Jim

    I don’t understand the “it’s deception” arguments. It seems to me the only way this couple would be deceiving insurance companies is if they were *legally* married and then tried to hide this fact. I also agree with Jeff #16– I don’t see a *requirement* for the government to recognize a marriage. I for one would like to see a more clear distinction in our culture between what the government recognizes and what the church recognizes.

  • JohnM

    I’m with April #10 & Tallandrew #22. What would the couple see fit to do if medical insurance was not an issue and why? Is that path a straight one or is it not? Subtract the question of medical insurance and what would the pastor think was the right thing to do? What is the reason that would be the right thing to do and is that really a reason that can be negated by circumstances?

  • BruceB

    While we are commanded by Scripture in Romans 13 to obey the government, we also know that command was given at a time when the Christian church had no opportunity to influence the government and shape it in any Christian way. Throughout American history (and I presuming the couple is American) the church has been willing to ignore or go against the state for reasons of faith, for better or worse.

    So perhaps the question this pastor must ask is not if it is right to deceive the government by performing a Christian ceremony for this couple, but whether the injustices in our health care system require him to deceive the government and insurance companies.

    I agree with #23, in that I would like to see a greater separation between government and religious roles in marriage, and then let the church sort out the thorny issues we would have when we get to decide who should be married or not. But more to the point, I agree with #24, who has the right question for the couple–otherwise they should not be married. I suggest my question must also be answered by the pastor. We would not deceive the government just to gain then an unfair advantage–we should only do so if such an act is a demonstration of Christ’s compassion or an act of justice to bring in the kingdom of God.

  • Robin

    For those saying “Marry them” I just want to make sure that it is truly the principle that “the church is required to have state-sanctioned marriages” and you would stick to that rule for other couples, not just elderly ones, or not just ones in this degree of situation.

    Here are some other similar situation I could envision with younger couples and slightly less dire medical situations. Would “marry them” (in the eyes of the church only) be an acceptable response in these as well?

    #1 Single mom receives a medical card because of her child, if she gets married in the eyes of the state her husband’s income will disqualify her from receiving Medicaid and they cannot afford to insure her in the private markets.

    #2 Two teenagers or people in their early twenties with health problems want to get married, but they cannot afford health insurance and if they get married they can no longer be covered by their parents’ policies (they can currently be covered by their parents until they are 26).

    These are both scenarios that I encountered as a Medicaid worker. Would you encourage both of those couples to get married in religious ceremonies but not have it recognized by the state?

  • Robin

    For the record, I have never had a problem with mormon couples marrying in religious ceremonies not recognized by the state because the state has forbade their religious practices so it seems reasonably for them to practice their religion in a manner that avoids the state’s scrutiny.

    But I have never been a fan of their tendency to put their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th wives on the public dole since legally that “husband’s” income isn’t counted toward the spiritual wives. They have polygamous marriages, they share homes, meals, all their income, etc., but for the “spiritual wives” we pretend that there is no husband (and no income) so they can get welfare checks and food stamps.

    The elderly couple is certainly more gut wrenching, but the principle being used to advocate it draws a fine line between honoring God and welfare fraud.

  • david e brown

    looks like I am the only pastor who has done one of these…really? My 76 yr old father in law lost his wife to cancer. about a year later he ran into a woman at his 60th class reunion who also had lost her husband. they engaged in conversation, discovered they had some things in common, (one of the big issues being lonliness) started dating and spending time together, and after about a year asked if i would marry them without the state being involved. The issues for such a couple are many…the least of which is not financial considerations of two completely separate familes and how an inheritance would be handled, health issues, etc. Both are strong, faithful Christians and wanted their relationship to be “right” in the eyes of God. So…we had a great celebration in our living room with 4 generations present. We heard testimonies of faithfulness, God’s action in 78 yr old lives, we sang,read scripture and i commented on it, and we laughed and cried…and vows were made. we didn’t file anything with the government. really, i don’t think it was necessary. it is perhaps an exception to the rule…but i would do it again in the same circumstances for others…

  • JohnM

    daved e brown – If you don’t think the state really needs to be involved – ever – for a marriage to be proper and legitimate, that’s one thing.

    Likewise for those of you think the church never needs to be involved, you could, consistent with your convictions accept, even encourage, couples to proceed accordingly.

    Of course you could be wrong in your convictions in either case, but I’m not arguing that one way or another here. I’m just saying if Christians take marriage as seriously as we claim to we should stick to whatever our convictions are concerning marriage. Or else they’re not really convictions, and we should stop preaching on the subject.

  • Percival

    A key question would be, are they simply avoiding a government penalty on marriage, or is the official marriage being avoided to get or retain a benefit from a contract they have made? This one doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the government penalizing them for being married.

    A contract with an insurance company is an agreement they (or one of them) made years ago. They have no right to break that agreement and try to retain the benefit. This case is not about fighting injustice or anything like that. It is more akin to fraud. Sorry that sounds harsh.

  • EricW

    If this is about private health insurance and not Medicare or Medicaid or some form of state health insurance, then I might agree with Percival @30 that this has nothing to do with the state or government and everything to do with defrauding an insurance company. More specifics about the kind and source of the insurance is needed.

  • Paul W

    @28 David e Brown

    I think that you may have touched on an underlying assumption that many have when you state that the couple “wanted their relationship to be ‘right’ in the eyes of God” through a church ceremony. Do you think a church can ‘make a relationship right’ or were you (more or less) trying to accomplish some other important pastoral goal?

    @11 John W Frye

    I don’t read anyone here as trying to toss marriage away from the church (although I’m not certain that I understand what you mean by that). No one has denied the analogical correlation of God to his people as with a husband and wife or attempted to downplay in a more general way the importance of marriage in the eyes of God.

    What I have found is that Christians all various stripes very often assume that churches should be in the buisiness of performing weddings. I have also found this to be embraced on a practical level with quite a bit of ardency. If your experience has been different I beg your pardon. However, the tenacity with which such an assumption is held seems to be altogether disproportionate to any theological reasoning.

    What does a theological rationale look like that attempts to establish that churches have been empowered to perform weddings or are legitimized toward such functions? What makes weddings an ecclesial matter rather than a more general societal function?

    Perhaps there has been some important practical/theological work done on this front but I’m not aware of it. If you (as someone who works in that field) are aware of such I’d love to be pointed in the right direction.

  • Jason Lee

    Robin’s “welfare fraud” insinuation made think about how some people (usually it seems political conservatives) choose to use language that casts certain groups behaviors in a negative light (often poor people who are helped by social programs set up for the public good). Why is it spoken of negatively when poor people work with the rules and systems for their well-being and that of their children? More importantly, why is it NOT spoken of or framed negatively when private corporations (and those who own and lead them) seemingly hire armies of lawyers to do everything they can to work around rules, avoid responsibility, and do almost anything they can to rake in even more massive profits? Why are we so less concerned about the irresponsible behavior of corporations, which are far more injurious to a far greater number of people through behaviors such as tax evasion, predatory marketing tactics, dishonesty in advertising, the production of sub-quality and dangerous products, lack of concern for workers’ and citizens’ safety and health, not to mention the devastation of irreplaceable natural environments and resources? It puzzles me whenever I hear people point the finger at those using welfare programs to survive in the occupationally precarious and unfair country we live in. Even if some of the poor may be guilty of welfare fraud from time to time, its small potatoes compared to massive fraud or borderline white-collar crime committed by corporations across the US. What gives?

  • John W Frye

    Practicing theological discernment for an *ad hoc* marital situation (as defined in the post) does not lend itself to slippery slopes and precedent setting. Various sectors converge here: biblical teaching about marriage (and the couple’s desire to honor that word), their age and insurance company realities, and the ambiguity of church/state roles. Using the Bible as a “rule book” it appears some would say, “No.” The couple cannot marry and keep both insurances. Let’s try that out. They marry. The wife’s coverage is dropped. She gets sick, has no insurance coverage and dies. But at least she “obeyed.” Her obedience to (arbitrary) insurance law is greater than her life. Really? It is not a lie to not tell everything you know. Samuel was beside himself when he was told to go anoint a new king. Samuel told God, “Saul will kill me.” God said, “Don’t tell Saul what you’re doing. Just saying you’re going up to offer sacrifice.” Which Saul did do…and he also anointed David. Was the deceitful or wise?

  • John W Frye

    Last sentence should read in # 34 “Was that deceitful or wise?”

  • Jesus teaches us that it is God who joins together a man and a woman in marriage (Matthew 19:6). That makes marriage, first of all, a theological matter. The State has an interest in the civil aspect of marriage, but it does not trump God’s interest — and right — to join a man and woman together in marriage. So marriage exists even if the State is indifferent or even hostile to it (or is indifferent or hostile to God).

    If tomorrow the State refused to acknowledge marriage as valid, that would not therefore make it invalid in the eyes of God. Marriage would still be the joining together, by God, of a man and a woman.

  • Robin

    Jason Lee (and others),

    I would really like to get substantive arguments on the core issues at play here.

    What we are really discussing is this
    (1) If the couple gets a civil marriage they will lose some benefits
    (2) those benefits can range from (a) essential to keep people alive to (b) important to maintain preferred lifestyles
    (3) We are proposing that it is permissible for couples to get “religious marriages” that are not sanctioned/recognized by the civil authority
    (4) Is it permissible to get those types of marriages (a) whenever the couple requests it (b) only when there will be some financial repurcussions (c) only when there will be severe financial repurcussions (d) only when there will be life-threatening financial repurcussions
    (5) Even if there are severe financial repurcussions, what role should fraud play?

    If you just want to say “marry this couple, we don’t need a framework for evaluating circumstances in the future” I think that is a cop-out. I want to know how to think about the situation.

    If we take the broadest possible interpretation: any couple can receive a spiritual marriage without civil recognitition, defend it.

    In most states alimony is terminated upon remarriage. So imagine you had a woman receiving generous alimony from her ex-husband who now wants to remarry. However, she knows that if the new marriage is recognized by the state her generous alimony will be terminated.

    You have just performed the elderly couple marriage and she comes to you and says “you performed their marriage without telling the state so that they could keep their insurance benefits, now I want you to marry me in the same way so that I can be married, but still keep my alimony payments flowing from my ex-husband.”

    Do you perform the marriage because you have decided all marriages can be religious without being civil, or do you turn down her request because it is an attempt to defraud her ex-husband. What do you say to “but you did it for the elderly couple.”

  • Robin

    If the possible situations present to many complexities to come up with a philosophy of when to perform/not perform marriages which aren’t recognized by the state, please at least give some general principles you would follow like:

    (1) I’d perform them anytime they were requested, regardless of the reason or circumstances

    (2) I’d only perform them when there was serious potential for catastrophic health consequences,etc.,

    Just a framework of when (generally) it would be OK and when it wouldn’t be OK.

  • DRT

    Robin, I think this is a judgment call. If the pastor does not marry them, then there is no difference to anyone except their own perceived difference between them and god. Likewise, the only thing that changes if they marry is their own perceived difference between them and god. If they want to be married to feel better about themselves and their relationship with god then do it. That seems quite clear.

    The option to marry them under the law is not a consideration, they have made up their mind about that.

    I seem to run into this quite regularly in life where some feel that being fair is to apply rules rigidly to everyone despite circumstance while others feel that fair is to use judgment in applying rules. I feel we should use judgment.

    For your original two cases, I would say that the #1 case is clear that they should not get married since they cannot afford to be married. Part of the judgment of being married is being able to afford it, and they can’t.

    Same for number 2. The young people should stay on their parent’s policies.

    I would council them to use their desire to be married to educate themselves and work on being self sufficient. Get a good education and get on an employer policy that waives pre-existing conditions.

    But if they were more or less terminal, and had no opportunity to ever improve their situation, then I would give very good thought to marrying them.

    But small things make a big difference in this decision/judgment.

    So, I think part of my framework would include if they are marrying for the sake of children or for the sake of themselves. Anyone desiring to make lifelong commitment to another before god without the possibility of children (including adopted) should be married without consideration to the law.

    Children greatly complicate the matter.

  • DRT

    Incidentally, that is also why I wholly endorse same sex marriages in a church. The pastor will be in the position to understand why they are making this union. If it is for the right reasons, it would be a sacred marriage before god regardless if it is strictly legal in their state/country or not.

  • To say that something is permissible is not to say that it is necessarily preferable. And inasmuch as marriage is a divine institution, and the State is not always interested in the things of God (and indeed, is often indifferent, if not hostile to, the things of God), I think there is probably not a one-size-fits-all answer to the questions generated about what is permissible.

    Mostly, I think, it will come down to individual convictions. First, those of the couple desiring to be married in the eyes of God. There are at least a couple of considerations there — their own personal convictions, but also how it might be received by their family and friends. Second, there is the conviction of the minister being asked to perform the wedding service. Along with that, there is the question of whether the denomination or group that ordained him or her would approve.

    There are a number of different wedding customs in the world, and what is required in one place for a marriage to be recognized may not be the same as what is required in another. I remember that Isaac to Rebekah into his mother’s tent, “and he took Rebekah and she became his wife” (Genesis 24:67). That is very different from way marriages are performed today in the USA. There does not appear to have been any government agent on hand, or forms to sign for the State. So were they really married?

    When I meet couples from other countries, or other states in my own country, and they present themselves as married, I accept that. I don’t question whether it is a State-recognized marriage.

    I am reminded of when C. S. Lewis married Joy Davidman. It was a civil service and purely for the sake of Davidman being able to remain in England. A “marriage of convenience.” Lewis thought little of it. But as time passed, he realized his love for Davidman and desired to be married in the eyes of God.

    But let me ask you, Robin, are the only marriages you are willing to recognize are the ones that the State recognizes? Or is there any conceivable situation in which you would recognize a marriage that the State does not recognize. Or is it only the State that makes a marriage valid?

    I have no hard and fast answers. Only the recognition that marriage belongs to God and that His claim on it is greater than that of any State.

  • mark

    I guess if this catches on, everyone will need to update forms to include Single” and “married” with subset choices of “State recognized” and “only in the eyes of God” to keep people from the uncomfortableness of lying when checking the “single” box, when married only in the eyes of God.

    Then again, I suppose I only registered my marriage with the state to obtain benefits under the Federal and state law, not because I legally had to.

  • I should be clear that, when I spoke of couples presenting themselves as married, I mean man/woman couples presenting themselves as husband and wife. I neither endorse nor recognize male/male or female/female couplings as marriage. I do not think the Scriptures leave us that option, and Jesus described marriage as a man and his wife joined together by God (Matthew 19:4-6).

  • Fish

    I believe it is likely that the bonding together of a man and a woman in a committed relationship to raise children predates our consciousness of God. There are such great evolutionary advantages to the arrangement. Perhaps it was a practice that contributed to our awakening to God.

    I can certainly agree with the separation of church and state as it applies to marriage — they are too conjoined now — but it seems to me that one implication of marriage belonging solely to the church is that a church could marry same-sex couples, polygamous arrangements, or even child marriages. For all but the first, you could find/create a Biblical basis easily enough. There are already what, 1000 different protestant denominations out there? I could see more.

    Of course, the state does not have to confer the advantages currently associated with marriage on any of these “marriages,” but does it not have a responsibility to put some kind of boundaries around things like betrothing 12-year-olds?

  • Fish

    Just to clarify, my position on gay marriage has been that the state has the power to marry them and the church has the power to not recognize it as from God.

  • Mark, legal forms would require the legally recognized answer. Employment forms usually do as well. Insurance forms do also (which is why I do not think the case in the opening post suggest any sort of fraud.

    Christian missionaries in foreign countries have run into the situation where a male convert has more than one wife. It is not very form-friendly. What should be done there? Should he select only one, and cast out the rest for fend for themselves. In a lot of cultures that would work a very severe hardship on those other wives.

    I don’t think anybody here has suggested that filing the appropriate marriage forms with the State is wrong, or should not be done, of even that it is not preferable to do so. It is generally good to do so. The question, though, is whether it is absolutely necessary to do so in order for a marriage to be valid before the eyes of God. I cannot think of any Scripture that requires such absolute necessity. Nor do I find any Scripture that requires that a marriage must be recognized by the State for it to be valid before God.

  • Robin


    I recognize lots of marriages that the state does not. I recognize that slaves had the right to marry one another even when their owners or state laws forbade it.

    I recognize the rights of mormons to marry as many people as they want (religiously) regardless of the state’s decisions. Heck I would recognize community marriages as a valid expression of religious/cultural heritages.

    If we have the kind of churches that only practiced “religious marriages” according to our ethical principles and told the couples “make sure you also visit the justice of the peace if you want civil benefits” then we would have a perfectly consistent and enforceable position.

    It just gets tough when you contemplate (1) marrying some people both civilly and religiously so that their relationship is recognized by the church and the state and (2) marrying some people wrt religion exclusively so that their relationship can be recognized by the church but hidden from the state.

    Like I said, I see the value in this latter category when the union itself is outlawed by the state (perhaps a Christian marrying a female muslim convert in a muslim country) but I get…uneasy…when the explicit purpose of pursuing this strategy is financial in nature.

    The flip side of the coin would be getting married on paper (in the eyes of the state) to get benefits when there was no real marriage. I would fill similarly uneasy if pastors were declaring marriages where no real relationship existed, and there too it would depend on the situation.

    If a pastor “married” two business partners so they could get better tax treatment or so that they wouldn’t have to testify against one another at a criminal trial that would be bad.

    If a pastor “married” two people so that one wouldn’t have to be deported to a country where they were going to be killed for being a Christian it would be a different matter.

  • Robin

    I think that is the crux of the dilemma for me…we are talking about performing a small set of marriages differently from the rest of the marriages that we perform…SO THAT THEY CAN HIDE SOMETHING FROM THE GOVERNMENT.

    So then I have to think about when the bible declares it OK to deceive the government or those in authority over you. Clearly it was OK to be deceptive if your life was at stake…Rahab lied to the guards, etc.

    I have a hard time think of times it was OK to be deceptive so that you (1) wouldn’t have to pay taxes (2) would get extra financial benefits (3) would have better healthcare.

    Maybe this couple’s situation is close enough to Rahab’s (they’ll die if the gov’t finds out and cancels insurance) that it would fit under that paradigm.

    I guess the bigger question is we would need a better framework for “under what scenarios is it OK to deceive the government” and then perform this type of marriage when it fell into one of those scenarios.

  • Mike McLeod

    Hi All. Just a little more specific info. on the issue. The couple under consideration is (1) too young just yet to qualifiy for medicare/medicaid, rather (2) their medical insurance situation involves a “private” medical plan along with retirement. Hope this helps the discussion.

  • I don’t think it is hiding anything from the government or, in this case, the insurance company. It is operating within the rules set out by both the government and the insurance company. The State does not require that anyone be married. And as far as I can tell, the Scriptures do not require that one’s marriage be recognized by the State. The insurance company operates by legal definitions. If a couple is not legally recognized by the State as married, an insurance company is not required to treat either party of the couple as legally married.

  • EricW

    Why do people keep responding as if it’s State/Federal health insurance benefits that are at stake? Nowhere in the original post does it mention the kind/source of health insurance.

    Unless I missed my requested clarification, I think most of the responses here re: whether it’s proper to perform a religious wedding ceremony in this situation are invalid and missing the point until it’s made clear whether the couple is seeking to defraud/deceive the government or a private company.

  • EricW

    Ooops. Okay. I see the response to my question in 49. Mike McLeod. Thanks!

  • DRT

    I don’t find myself on Jeff’s side very often, but this is one. If the couple is not interested in a state marriage then they are not forced into it. They also don’t get the benefits of it.

    If the insurance company wants to drop people who are in lifelong monogamous relationships, then they need to ask that. What they ask, no doubt, is if they are in a legally binding relationship, not a godly one.

  • EricW

    So now I think a response to this situation perhaps depends on what the insurance company’s policy defines as “married,” if it even defines “married.”

  • DRT

    Robin#48, seriously, think about what people would say if the government deemed that 2 people are married, although they say they do not want to be legally married. That’s nuts.

    The fact is that they do not want to be legally married. Done. They better not be forced to be.

    OK, and how about the case where friends of the JP are at diner with her and ask her to bless them and their lifelong relationship. They would not be married, they need a license for that and have to pay a fee etc.

    Which brings up a point, the pastor better not charge a marriage fee!

  • JohnM

    #49 – Sounds like one of the parties was previously married to a military retiree.

    In any case, the question whether or not anyone is being defrauded is still only a secondary issue.

  • Robin


    I don’t care if the couple is legally married. My larger point is that the normal practice of this pastor is to marry people in both a civil and religious ceremony, and the only reason he is changing his practice in this case is that the couple doesn’t want their marriage to “count” in the civil sense so that they can continue to get a benefit that they wouldn’t if they were “really married.”

    If there is specific fraud/deception intended in this particular case, it is very clear that this type of marriage could be used for that purpose in multiple other situations (like any of the ones I have listed above).

  • DRT

    Well Robin, guess we disagree. The whole point is the legally married part to me. Legally married is a contract validated and supported by law. That is all, outside the church.

  • Remove the words “elderly” and change the scenario of losing “medical insurance” to whatever you like & now think it through.

    If a young couple came to me with a proposition along these lines I would say to them what I’d say to this elderly couple, I won’t marry you.

  • Paul W

    Various satellite issues revolving around potential fraud/dishonesty, consistency of pastoral practice, and ad hoc caregiving concerns have been batted around pretty well.

    However, I think there is an underlying and more fundamental and theological question that is at work. How one answers that question will significantly affect pastoral practice. The question: What constitutes (from a theologically informed perspective) the initiation of a marriage? Or perhaps, what legitimizes a marital relationship in the eyes of God? May be you all can better articulate the nature of the question but I suspect you get the gist of it.

    Here is how I’d initially would lay out options. Perhaps those better informed could provide better categories or nuance.

    1. Society/State establishes a marriage and the church may recognize it as valid.
    2. Church establishes a marriage and the State may recognize it as valid.
    3. State or Church may establish a marriage and may recognize the other’s as valid.
    4. The couple establishes a marriage and the State and/or the Church may recognize it as valid.

    Is this useable? Wrongheaded?

    I lay those categories out, in part, because I’m simply amazed at the dearth of theological reflection about Church weddings. Given their ubiqitous practice and the depth of pathos around them the disparity then between that and the lack of real theological reasoning is all the more dramatic.

    Am I wrong about that? If not, any idea why this is so?

  • I’ve followed along reading every posting and nit that has been picked and hair split… clauses, sub-clauses, conditions and contracts. I’m pretty sure my initial response remains the same; I don’t see this as an issue about marriage at all. I’ve considered the topic one that is targeted more about how to justify deception and dishonesty.

    I wouldn’t marry the couple under their conditions and request; I could not do so in good conscience believing in my heart that I was helping someone commit what I thought was an act of fraud.

  • Dave

    As a pastor, the main issue I see is one of participating in fraud; namely calling a living arrangement “marriage” for the sake of religious conscience, while telling the agencies providing the benefits that no legal marriage exists. As such I would not be able to do the wedding.

    That being said I have had another thought running through my head concerning my role as a pastor being in concert or conflict with being an agent of the state with regard to weddings. If the state wants to recognize religious weddings as a legally binding arrangement, that’s fine. Where it begins to get muddy is when the state attempts to regulate and dictate what a religious ceremony should look like, and who it should be available to. It’s a slippery slope some pastors are faced with already in states that have legalized same-sex marriages, regardless of whether you are for or against same-sex marriages.

    I think that if they haven’t done it already pastors need to wrestle with and decide are they primarily an agent of the church, or an agent of the state with regards to weddings.

  • JohnM

    Jeff Borden #61 – If I’m understanding you “I don’t see this as an issue about marriage at all.” I disagree. Even if the original inquiry was only concerned about possibly participating in deception and dishonesty (which is not what I thought)the first concern should have been (as I thought it was) ‘Am I facilitating a sham marriage against my beliefs and conscience or do I think this would be a real and legitimate marriage?’ If the answer is ‘yes I am and no I don’t’ the issue of deception and dishonesty should be moot.

    If a pastor first of all honestly believes the state is irrelevant THEN he or she might next want to consider any possiblilty of anyone being defrauded or otherwise wronged. My postion all along has been, whatever you would normally do, don’t do differently than you otherwise think is right just because someone stands to lose or gain monetarily.

  • JohnM #63 I agree with your point and position: “My postion all along has been, whatever you would normally do, don’t do differently than you otherwise think is right just because someone stands to lose or gain monetarily.”

    Perhaps you understood me correctly. What I intended in my comment “I don’t see this as an issue about marriage…” may need more context for clarity. I don’t think the marriage is the most important issue in the question or the request. Certainly it is important or the couple wouldn’t have approached the pastor with their request in the first place, but the “real issue” in my opinion is more about insurance and perhaps other benefits allocated under contractural specifics that would be voided if the recipient were to become “legally” (ie., state recognized) married. This was what I meant.

    Not that it matters, but if I felt strongly that God had brought me together in relationship with someone and we should be joined in matrimony I would do it. I wouldn’t be concerned over the loss or gain of any benefits as conditions to marriage. That’s me. I have already forfeited the security of similar benefits based upon convictions, but that’s me. I don’t see a separation between Scriptural-religious living and “everyone else.” I believe there is one narrative: Jesus. While my interpretation may be askew, I think Jesus intended us to live in submission to the powers that be whether they were right or wrong–local, state, federal, or big business. The way we make a difference is through living differently while remaining submissive to the laws that also govern our society and pursuing activism through integrity and righteous living (which includes many things). This is the lens for my perspective.

  • JohnM

    Jeff Borden #64 – I would pretty much agree there. Thanks for the clarification.

    To finally “take a side”, I don’t see that marriage was ever just a matter of agreement between the couple involved, with no regard for earthly authority, or societies acknowledgment. The different shapes this governmental/societal involvement take/have taken in different times and places doesn’t change the principal. Furthermore, any couple who expects and desires acknowlegment of their marital status in the end has no right to say ‘none of your business’ in the breach. So I come down on the side of governing authority’s involvment being mandatory and religious ceremony being optional.

  • JohnM

    That is “in the breech”. Sometimes I catch em sometimes I don’t.

  • DRT

    Wow, I look forward to more discussion on this topic. Great discussion folks.