Should The Church Be In The Marrying Business?

Should The Church Be In The Marrying Business? July 9, 2013

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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