Are Evangelicals Rejecting Legal Marriage?

Are Evangelicals Rejecting Legal Marriage? June 18, 2015

I recently came upon an article noting that a Christian couple in Australia has stated that they will get a divorce if marriage equality comes to their country.

Our view is that marriage is a fundamental order of creation. Part of God’s intimate story for human history. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman before a community in the sight of God. And the marriage of any couple is important to God regardless of whether that couple recognises God’s involvement or authority in it.

My wife and I, as a matter of conscience, refuse to recognise the government’s regulation of marriage if its definition includes the solemnisation of same sex couples. […]

The truth is, “marriage” is simply too important. It is a sacred institution, ordained by God. It has always been understood to be that exclusive relationship where one man and one woman become “one flesh”. Any attempt to change the definition of marriage by law is not something in which we are able to partake.

This stood out to me because Michael Pearl has written something similar:

None of my daughters or their husbands asked the state of Tennessee for permission to marry. They did not yoke themselves to government. It was a personal, private covenant, binding them together forever—until death. So when the sodomites have come to share in the state marriage licenses, which will eventually be the law, James and Shoshanna will not be in league with those perverts. And, while I am on the subject, there will come a time when faithful Christians will either revoke their state marriage licenses and establish an exclusively one man-one woman covenant of marriage, or, they will forfeit the sanctity of their covenant by being unequally yoked together with perverts. The sooner there is such a movement, the sooner we will have a voice in government. Some of you attorneys and statesmen reading this should get together and come up with an approach that will have credibility and help to impact the political process. Please contact me when you do and I will assist with publicity.

What is going on here, exactly?

Marriage is a legal contract between two consenting adults. The effect of this legal contract does not change if it is extended to all consenting adults. But for evangelicals, marriage is also religious. The trouble is that many evangelicals have conflated the religious and legal aspects of marriage. The Catholic Church, in contrast, has long treated the religious aspects of marriage as a sacrament separate from the legal aspects of marriage.

When I was a little girl growing up in an evangelical home, I went to a wedding at our church. After the ceremony, my dad took me over to the side where the bride and groom were signing the marriage license. He told me that that moment, right there, was the moment when the couple actually became man and wife. Catholics would consider such an idea preposterous. Marriage, they would say, occurs before God, not before the state.

Of course, this also means that Catholics do not see legal divorce as actually ending a couple’s marriage. If two individuals are married in the Catholic Church, only an annulment will end that marriage in the eyes of the Church. Technically an annulment does not even end a marriage, it rather states that said marriage never took place. Either way, if you are leaving a marriage as a Catholic you have to do it twice, once before the law and once before the Church.

In contrast, evangelicals tend to accept a legal divorce as the end of a marriage. Indeed, depending on the size of a church, a pastor may not even be notified of a divorce, and if he is, his role will be limited to trying to provide marriage counseling to save the marriage. An evangelical pastor will rarely insist that a couple is still married even after a divorce, though some will insist that it is not permissible for divorced persons to remarry.

Do you remember the recent controversy surrounding the Village Church in Dallas? To make a long story short, Karen Hinkley discovered shortly after her wedding that her husband watched child porn. When confronted, he admitted that he was sexually attracted to prepubescent children. Karen moved to end her marriage, and as a result church leadership put her under discipline. The issue in this case was not that the church would not consider the legal end of her marriage to be religiously valid but rather that Karen had signed a document upon becoming a member of the church stating that she would work with the elders to preserve her marriage before taking steps to end it, and that she failed to do.

I suspect that evangelicals have conflated religious and legal marriage at least in part because our nation has been so long dominated by Protestantism. Given that our nation’s marriage laws tended to be created by Protestants, it is easy to see how Protestants might have de facto accepted the legal marriage system they created as synonymous with religious marriage. (I should note that this is simply surmise on my part, and I would want to do some research into nineteenth century Protestant views of the religious aspect of marriage before stating it definitively.)

There are evangelicals today who are pushing back against the conflation of religious and legal marriage, but they tend to take a different approach from the aforementioned Australian couple and Michael Pearl. Rather than arguing that couples should not enter legal marriage, they argue that churches should take the religious aspect of marriage more seriously, and see the legal aspect as little more than a two-person contract. Seeing legal marriage more as a legal contract and less as the thing that creates the marriage may be one way evangelicals come to terms with the increasing reach of marriage equality.

Don’t expect to see a surge in divorces among evangelicals after marriage equality is universal. Instead, expect to see evangelicals put an increased emphasis on detangling religious marriage from legal marriage.

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