Why Churches Should Stop Performing Marriages

Editor's Note: This article is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos'  Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."

The institution of marriage has been in trouble for a long time, and the greatest threat it faces is not gay marriage. It is the careless attitude with which marriage is regarded by modern westerners. For many, marriage is merely a matter of personal convenience, susceptible to termination for just about any reason, including a simple waning of interest in your spouse. Making binding promises before God has nothing to do with it. No wonder that many in our culture imagine that a "marriage" could be between people of the same sex. If marriage is all about individual preference, why not define it however you want? It it's just about two people making a temporary agreement, then why should consenting adults not be allowed to define the terms of their agreement however they please?

I want to propose a radical solution to this problem. Churches should stop performing marriages.

Let me explain. Pastors should consider no longer performing the civil ceremonies of weddings; instead, they could explain to prospective brides and grooms that if they want a state marriage certificate, then they should go see the judge. But if they also want a biblical marriage—let's use the old-fashioned term matrimony, to distinguish it from our nearly meaningless legal concept of "marriage"—then the church can help them. In other words, if a couple is actually prepared to observe the high commitment required by biblical matrimony, then they can have a wedding at the church.

State-defined but church-performed marriage is a relic of medieval Christendom, or the idea that the functions of the church and of the state closely overlap. Some Protestant reformers, including the early Puritan founders of New England, rejected this intermingling of church and state. They saw marriage as an exclusively civil rite, and they refused to perform church weddings at all. (A solution more radical than the one I am proposing here!)

Whether we like it or not, we live in a profoundly post-Christian culture with little commitment to biblical marriage, which is a sacred covenant before God between a man and a woman, which (Lord willing) leads to the raising of children, and which is not subject to divorce except in extreme circumstances. Yet many people who otherwise make no serious pretentions to faith still think that their marriage should be consecrated in a church with pews and stained glass. This reflects a harmful confusion that the church would radically clarify by practicing only matrimony, not civil marriage.

Among the normal requirements for matrimony, as assessed by churches in pre-matrimonial counseling, would be 1) a sincere commitment to Christ by the prospective spouses, 2) no pre-existing patterns of sin, including premarital sex, infidelity, and/or abuse, and 3) an understanding that seeking illegitimate divorce would result in shame before fellow believers, and possibly church discipline. Because the church would no longer be acting as an extension of the state, churches under this system could easily justify the refusal of all kinds of non-biblical marriages, including gay unions.

Churches would not lose anything by taking this approach to marriage, except perhaps some disgruntled folks who have to go elsewhere to get their marriage certificates. Couples who chose to wed in biblical matrimony would gain a lot, and the benefits to American society would be numerous. Rampant divorce is especially harmful to the psychological and economic standing of children. We all seem intuitively to understand that being married for a lifetime is an honorable, healthy thing, and that a life spent in a series of heartbreaks and divorces is bad (think Larry King or Elizabeth Taylor).

But I see little chance that the government could ever require a covenantal model of marriage. (Louisiana, Arkansas, and Arizona have legally adopted "covenant marriage" options, making divorce more difficult for those who choose this designation, but these efforts have had very limited success.) Because they are incapable of mandating the requirements of biblical matrimony, state governments will have to keep treating marriage like a Las Vegas wedding chapel does: no distinctions made, no questions asked, just pay up and kiss the bride.

Fighting to make the government defend a biblical view of marriage—including exclusively heterosexual marriage—is a losing battle precisely because the government can't play the role of the church. The government and many churches have long since defined marriage as the union of any two people who want to say they are married and who wish to avail themselves of the tax advantages thereof.

Fighting to exclude gays and lesbians from this largely meaningless arrangement is a paltry diversion. The church would be better served to stop performing civil marriages for the state and fight for a truly sacred cause: renewing the biblical meaning of matrimony within the church.