Covenant marriage isn’t suited to Christians

Covenant marriage isn’t suited to Christians December 10, 2010

This post is part of a series on covenant marriage.

For Catholics and theologically conservative Christians, there is no difference between a covenant marriage and the standard form.  In either case, the marriage is sealed as a promise between both spouses but also as a promise between the couple and God. Although the couple could release each other from the commitment they have made to each other, the marriage cannot be dissolved unless God, through his human agents, releases them from their commitment to Him (presumably in the form of an annulment).

To embrace covenant marriage implies that Christians who have standard marriages are only held to the lesser standard of state law, rather than religious law.  From a Christian point of view, state law is entirely irrelevant to proper conduct.

It would be impossible for the Christian conception of marriage to be enshrined in federal law.  No atheists (or pretty much anyone but Christians and possibly Jews) could be free to marry, since a lack of belief in the Christian God could constitute an impediment to marriage, since an atheist could not knowingly and deliberately consent to a Christian marriage and remain an atheist in most cases.  Allowing only perfect Christian marriages to be recognized by law would diminish the positive effects of civil marriage.

If Christians can’t have control of civil marriage, they’re better off not yoking themselves to that institution to begin with.  As it stands, civil marriages will allow Catholic divorcées to remarry without annulments.  For Christians, civil marriages should be treated as an entirely bureaucratic matter like filling out a 1040 form or writing a will.  They are a way of interacting with the government, not a recognition of your commitment to your spouse.

Covenant marriage and modifications to the civil marriage code in general, should be intended for those who don’t have as strong a tradition or institution for marriage outside of civil marriage.  If covenant marriage is to be of use to anyone, it needs to be of use to atheists and secularists.  And this weekend, I’ll finally get around to explaining what purpose it serves for people like me.

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  • Matt Gerken

    You should talk to Gabe and get Father Ellsworth's take on this. Though I can't remember the details I know that he is very supportive of the state's role in Christian marriage, and nearly goes so far as to say that you aren't married if you don't have the marriage license. I don't think I agree, since I'm joining a Church in which marriage is a sacrament, but it's an interesting view from a theologically conservative Anglican.

  • Thanks for the tip-off, Matt, I just facebooked Gabe.Are you being received at the Easter Vigil? At STM, St. Mary's, or somewhere else?

  • I would seriously consider not getting legally married. The trick would be finding a woman who would go along with me on that. I'm amazed at how many people really care about the legal status of their marriage. I guess I'd want it for hospital visits and insurance policies and such but I can think of a better way than trying to innovate new concepts of marriage.I would prefer the government granting civil unions to everyone fort he sake of child rearing and social pairing and allowing individuals complete control over the word "marriage" in their lives. That sure takes the political edge off things and allows each culture to have their own marriage tradition. If their marriage tradition happens to overlap with the political concept of what a civil union is (along with whatever civil benefits such unions would have on society) then anyone who marries in that culture can apply for a civil union. I would be comfortable with this. I can get married in a church and have my Christian marriage and then have the government recognize the civil union I have with my wife.

  • I don't think this is a fair post. The sentiment that "from a Christian point of view, state law is entirely irrelevant to proper conduct", which pervades the post, is in fact completely wrong. The Bible emphasizes that states are divinely established and that we should gladly and without question follow the laws of the state (when they do not conflict with the laws of God). I certainly think having the state involved in marriage actually helps encourage the Christian concept of the importance of marriage (despite the fact that state marriage is not as strict and devoted as I would hope a Christian marriage would be), and I think having God's divinely established state encourage His institutions (marriage) is extremely Christian. Therefore, it is extremely unfair to say state laws are irrelevant to Christians.

  • I know (and I'm glad) that state law is not irrelevant to Christians generally, but I think marriage is a special case. Marriage as it currently exists nationally in America (leaving aside the question of gay marriage entirely) doesn't match your idea of marriage and certainly doesn't match a Catholic one.My impression of most Christian doctrine is that a civil marriage signifies nothing without a religious wedding, and a religious wedding is legitimate whether or not the couple gets it certified by the state. Thus, for a Christian, state marriage is irrelevant to the true, sacramental purpose of marriage.Christians have sufficient strictures on marriage in the church and don't need to bring state law in agreement with their principles. The only reason to alter it is to encourage non-Christians to change their ideas about marriage or simply to limit their options. That doesn't make the law irrelevant to Christians, since it can be used tactically, but it doesn't make it sacred or necessary.

  • Marriage is, first of all, a HUMAN institution. It is not, first, a state institution. It is not, first, a religious institution. Talking about the religious aspect of marriage is like talking about the religious aspect of a priest. You cannot have a "religious" marriage without a "natural", human marriage first any more than you can have a "religious" priest without having a "natural", human man first. The religious institutions elevate (in the eyes of the Church) the marriage to a sacrament but the religious institution does not create the marriage. The state regulates the marriage but the state does not create the marriage. The marriage would exist without the religion or the state. It is a natural institution that exists in all human cultures. It is a community that is created within a community.

  • Another important aspect of marriage is that the community recognizes it. Now there are and have been a myriad of human communities on earth and each community knows of marriage. The couple and their children make a small community and the larger community within which they live recognizes that. Even if they move to a new community their marriage will still be recognized as a marriage. Imagine, in the time of cavemen, a migrating couple moving from Asia across the land/ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska and meeting up with a new community in the New World. Most likely, the first thing the Native Americans would ask would be "Is this your woman?" and "Is this your husband." And if the answers are in the affirmative, the new community would probably (unless under the sway of a very corrupt leader who wanted to take the woman) respect the marriage. Even if there were such a corrupt leader, he would at least have to give some excuse for taking the woman and he would have probably have to kill her husband first before he could have her. Because every human community knows what marriage is.