Some Thoughts (and a Proposal) about the Religion and Marriage Issue

Some Thoughts (and a Proposal) about the Religion and Marriage Issue June 5, 2015

Some Thoughts (and a Proposal) about the Religion and Marriage Issue

It seems to me the next step in separation of church and state is one religious organizations should take. They should be proactive. Take the proverbial ball into their own court and decide and announce, very publically, that only they will decide for themselves who is and who is not married. This is the natural parallel with religious organizations alone deciding who is and who is not ordained.

In “old Europe” governments decided who was ordained with all the civil privileges and responsibilities attached to that status. So-called “sects” (religious organizations not recognized by the state) could ordain whomever they wished but, in the eyes of government, those ordinations meant nothing. In “new America,” gradually, through a series of court decisions, all governments got out of the business of deciding valid ordinations. Today, so far as I know, no government entity in the U.S. has the authority to declare any religious organization’s ordinations valid or invalid.

The next natural step is for churches and other religious organizations to take away from government the right and authority to decide for them who is married and who is not. Already some Baptist churches in Texas, for example, are doing this. Some are calling the marriages they perform and recognize “covenant marriage” and relegating marriages they don’t recognize as valid, for them, to the category “civil marriages” or “civil unions.”

What might this mean in practical terms? Well, for one thing, a church, for example, might (and perhaps should) decide that simply having a “marriage license” from a government entity (usually a county) is irrelevant to “covenant marriage.” A couple might have one or not and still be recognized as married in God’s sight and in the eyes of the church. A church, for example, might reject marriage licenses as irrelevant to covenant marriage. If a couple wants the civil privileges and responsibilities of marriage they would need to obtain a civil marriage license; if a couple wants the privileges and responsibilities of covenant marriage, which would be defined by the church, they would need to satisfy the church’s criteria for that.

Now, I know that some churches (and perhaps other religious organizations) are already doing this. I know, for example, of ordained ministers of the gospel who occasionally perform sacred weddings with witnesses and vows without ever seeing or knowing about a civil marriage license. But the next step is for churches to counsel couples who have only a civil marriage license and have never been united before God in a religious ceremony to come together for covenant marriage with whatever ceremony the church (or other religious organization) deems important. This means no longer recognizing civil unions (whether called marriage or not) performed by justices of the peace, for example, as valid in God’s and the church’s sight.

Now, this would have to be done with full recognition and counsel to the couple entering into covenant marriage that, in the eyes of some civil authorities, that alone makes them married in the eyes of the state. Some states have already thought ahead and declared by law that covenant marriage, called by whatever label, is common law marriage in the eyes of the state. In one state that I know of a little known ordinance declares that any two people who meet the minimum legal standards for marriage and who declare that they are married are civilly married. This is to protect women from manipulation by men who want the privileges of sex without the responsibilities of marriage.

Churches need to move ahead of the social curve, so to speak, and, for themselves, separate civil unions (marriage license granted by counties, for example) from covenant marriage. This will require other changes in their practices and policies, of course, including deciding when and how they recognize divorce, if at all, from a covenant marriage.

This practice exactly parallels the change from state sponsored and recognized ordinations to governments leaving the matter of ordination entirely and exclusively to religious organizations.

When I have suggested this before some critics have strenuously objected. But “on what grounds?” I ask them. Isn’t this the natural outcome of separation of church and state (which really means separation of religion from state)? They are comfortable with governments not deciding who is ordained, but for some reason they are uncomfortable with relegating marriage (as opposed to civil unions—called whatever) to churches, synagogues and mosques. I suspect they have not fully understood the implications of separation of church and state or the secularization and pluralism of American society. These are people, well-meaning, of course, who simply do not yet understand the meaning of pluralism. Or perhaps they do not grasp the fact that God never gave to any state the right to decide for him or for his people who is genuinely married.

None of this is to discourage religious leaders from strongly counseling, perhaps even requiring, people entering into covenant marriage to obtain a marriage license and add civil union to their covenant marriage. I can envision a pastor, for example, so counseling a couple entering into covenant marriage because he or she believes it is in the best interest of the couple. But it should not be because the government-granted civil union adds anything to covenant marriage in the eyes of the church. It doesn’t.

Or does it? If it does, I’d like to know what it adds. Has God granted to secular governments the right to decide for him who is truly married? When did this happen? How do we know it happened? Why would he do that?

I can envision a church announcing that every couple in the church who meets its criteria for covenant marriage but who only has civil union first meeting with the pastor and perhaps the elders or deacons and then, on a given Sunday all (every such couple) standing at the front of the church and taking vows of lifelong marriage in the sight of God and his people. I can also envision a church announcing that couples who wish to enter into covenant marriage and who meet the church’s criteria but who do not have a government granted civil marriage license meeting with the pastor and perhaps the elders or deacons and then coming before the pastor for covenant marriage with no question about a government granted license. (As I said, the pastor may or may not counsel them to go to the courthouse and get one for purely practical reasons. In my own case, I would do this and I will teach my students to do this whenever it is feasible.)

Yes, this means churches would also have to develop criteria about divorce from covenant marriage. Some churches would decide that, for them, covenant marriages are indissoluble. Others would decide that, for them, covenant marriages can be dissolved under certain circumstances but then they should decide what those are—just as the Catholic church now decides about what it calls “annulment.”

I predict the only alternative to what I here suggest is eventual Christian accommodation to whatever governments (legislatures and courts) decide constitutes marriage. For once, instead of limping behind the social order and its secular decisions, churches and other religious organization might consider being proactive and protecting their own right to decide for themselves who is and who is not truly married as they understand marriage as ordained by God.

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