Should The Church Be In The Marrying Business?

I really wish the Church would rethink her role in the marriage business in this country.

(And yes, I chose the word “business” on purpose.)

In light of the June 26 Supreme Court rulings about the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 in California, a few more voices joined the small choir of those who suggest that the civil/contractual nature of a marriage partnership is a different matter than that of a spiritual covenant made between two people in the context of their faith community. (Click here and here to hear from a couple of soloists in the choir of those endorsing some form of this idea.) A number of countries have civil marriage on their books.

Fewer weddings each year are performed by the couple’s pastor – or any pastor. Though organizations like this one exist in order to connect a couple who aren’t members of a church with a believing pastor licensed to perform a marriage ceremony, an increasing number of people have their favorite aunt or frat bro get ordained via an internet-based “denomination” that exists solely to create legal officiants for the purposes of performing a ceremony and signing a wedding certificate. Most of these officiants perform a single wedding for their pals. Other couples head to a courthouse or hire themselves a justice of the peace for the day of their wedding.

In light of the fact that it is as easy as clicking a PayPal button to become a licensed minister, there is no small irony in the fact that some congregations and denominations make the road to ordination a long and challenging one. After my husband graduated from seminary in 2007, he became a volunteer police chaplain for a department in a nearby town. He approached the pastor of the congregation we attended to see if he could begin the process to become licensed or ordained within the small denomination of which the church was a part so he might be able to perform a wedding for one of the officers if he was asked. “If you’re planning on planting a church, we can work toward licensing you,” he was told. “But we don’t have a licensing or ordination process in place for chaplains.” Bill could have gone the mail-order route if necessary, but he valued both his education and the process of being recognized by and accountable to a church body/denomination. In the end, a  PayPal Pastorate was not a viable option for him.

It turns out the word “process” used by the pastor cemented for me why a wedding – a covenant event – in the context of a church community is a very different entity than the legal and civil contract into which two parties enter on the day of the marriage. The process by which an individual becomes licensed or ordained is a function of the particular community of faith. The individual does not ordain him or herself. Couples who want to be married within that community are, at least in theory, choosing to submit themselves to that community, just as their officiant has elected to do. A wedding is an event, but marriage is a process. Faith, not particular government’s rules, is the foundation for a church’s function in the blessing of a union. Even churches that do not hold marriage as a sacrament recognize that their function in blessing a marriage has spiritual and moral dimensions far beyond the execution of a legal contract.

Which brings me back to the word “business”. State governments certify the legality of every marriage contract signed in this country, just as they do when a divorce ends that contract, and must be processed through the legal system in this country. A marriage partnership in the eyes of the government allows the parties involved certain legal benefits and responsibilities. The government does not and should not be involved beyond this point in our lives. If every couple begins with a civil ceremony – a contract-signing, perhaps with an optional giant reception to follow for those who forego a Church blessing ceremony – then the Church will be able to focus solely on who she is meant to be when it comes to marriage.

A Church-based matrimony blessing  ceremony wouldn’t be any different than what a church wedding is like today, save for the current scramble after the ceremony to make sure that the wedding certificate is properly (legally) witnessed and signed. Couples who elect to have a Church-based sacred ceremony are acknowledging that there is something more than law at work in their marriage. The author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecc. 4:12) A civil wedding contract allows two to defend themselves. For those of faith, a marriage within a church community is an acknowledgement that there is a third strand to their union.

Do you agree with this line of thinking? Am I missing something? Talk to me!  

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  • Tim

    I completely agree, Michelle. As one of those people authorized by law to perform civil ceremonies, I can tell you that these are much different than the wedding ceremonies you attend in churches. And as someone also authorized by law to dissolve marriages, I can tell you that whether to grant a judgment of dissolution really does come down to the civil aspects of the contract. If the couple meet the statutory requirements for ending the marriage, then I sign the judgment declaring essentially that they have met those requirements under the law.
    I think it would help if marriage contracts were entered into with a County Clerk presiding (the most common form of civil ceremony in our county) or judge or other statutorily authorized officiant, and then there were a church service commemorating the relationship. That way, the couple would be making a special statement in that spiritual commemoration that goes beyond the legal marriage contract.
    Of course, some people consider their church weddings to be very spiritual events and commitments. That’s how my wife and I looked at ours almost 26 years ago, and still do. But for the huge number of people who get married in a church just because that’s what they are used to, taking the legal authority out of the hands of the clergy and making all weddings civil would get people to consider just what they intend by then following with a church commemoration.
    Sorry this answer went so long Michelle. You really got me thinking!

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I was REALLY hoping you’d weigh in on this, Tim. I know you have perspective from both sides of the issue, Maybe the topic will become a blog post or two at your site sometime soon – hint hint hint.

      When Bill and I married nearly 34 years ago (way back when I was just 6 years old. Kidding), our ceremony was performed in a banquet hall as there was no way my parents would set foot in a church to attend a wedding. The compromise solution, which required much negotiation, was that a friend of ours who happened to be an elder in the church we attended served as the officiant. We had a “church” wedding in a non-church building location, which is also a trend, even among Christian couples. Parks, beaches, golf courses and banquet halls can become holy ground for those who want a wedding with God at the center.

      • Tim

        Exactly right, Michelle. When God oversees the wedding ceremony, all venues are hallowed and all marriages are blessed.
        P.S. Blog topic? I think I expended all my brain cells in that comment above! Give me some time and maybe something else will come to me.

  • E. J. Pole II
  • I only recently became aware of this idea (hadn’t hear that particular choir before:), and it makes sense to me. Do you think there’s resistance to this idea, or is it only now getting more widespread attention? I’m asking myself what the downside would be for the church. Can’t think of much. Thanks Michelle

  • Sarah Beyer

    I think that this is a fantastic clarification of the role of the church in marriage. This also, I think, helps to make clear some of the delineations for varying political views. I agree with you and Tim that the legal marriage contract is different from the marriage itself and certainly a Christian marriage warrants a different ceremony.

  • Interesting concept, separating the civil/contractual and religious aspects of marriage. I can see a fair number of political and social conservatives objecting because it could be seen as further removing the “sanctity” from the marriage, making it more completely a function of the state (which it is anyway). On the other hand, it has the advantage of making it clear that two adults, regardless of gender, are choosing to enter into a contractual relationship and that marriage as a religious act of devotion, is a separate entity.

    But not entirely, since there are plenty of liberal churches and synagogues that are more than willing to provide same-sex wedding ceremonies.

  • Ryan Hite

    The church does not perform marriages. They perform weddings. Even religious couples have to get a state license to be legally recognized as married and get all the benefits of a married couple.

  • Black Star Ranch

    “Marriage licenses” were originally only required when a man and woman of differing races wanted to become man and wife. Afterwhich, licenses were required for everyone, probably as a means of additional revenue. A marriage between a man, a woman, the reverend and God Almighty should continue as it has for centuries – including the garnering of signatures and required state license. The fear that now permeates the church with regards to having to officiate a marriage between a homosexual couple is something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Changing labels and types of ceremonies is a cowardly way to address what I believe is the fight The Lord WANTS us to engage. Don’t run from addressing the point of this matter: A marriage sanctified by God involves a man and a woman with a belief in Jesus Christ. Don’t be afraid of this pronouncement. If that takes making a “stand” at the steps of the church, so be it. Biblically, the clear definition of marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks for writing, Black Star Ranch. I do think there may be a different way to respond to how marriage is being redefined in our legal system and culture than trying to return a set of laws to a former state. I believe a church blessing ceremony (and the counseling process that leads into it) can actually elevate a marriage beyond the lowest-common denominator legal form of a state contract.