Is it time for the church to leave the marriage business?

Is it time for clergy to get out of the wedding business? An article in the Sacramento Bee describes a growing sense in some California churches that the traditional "church marriage" ceremony should be reconsidered:

The controversy over same-sex marriage – along with a growing sense that many couples who marry in churches never return – has prompted faith leaders to say it's time to reconsider how California couples tie the knot.


After the California Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California began encouraging all couples to marry outside the church.


"I urge you to encourage all couples, regardless of orientation, to follow the pattern of first being married in a secular service, and then being blessed in the Episcopal Church," Bishop Marc Handley Andrus wrote his clergy June 9.


The ideas described in the article center around offloading legal marriage ceremonies to the state, and allowing married couples to then optionally have their union blessed in a separate church ceremony (if the church approves). Proponents of the idea say that this would allow churches to stay out of messy legal quandaries about same-sex marriage laws, while still allowing churches to recognize and bless marriages that fit their spiritual criteria. And it would also address the common situation in which (sometimes unbelieving) couples are married in churches they'll never attend again.

Is that a good idea?

I am unsure if this would help with the "drive-by marriage" problem, simply because so many couples (religious or otherwise) feel family or social pressure to get married in a church, even if they don't attend the church and don't believe in (or live by) Biblical principles. But there is a certain appeal in removing the church from the legal side of marriage, and disentangling it from the legal/civic side of the same-sex marriage controversy.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • What is your church's response to engaged couples who want to get married in your church, but whose religious beliefs or lifestyles conflict with your church's teachings?
  • Does your church require engaged couples to attend counseling or worship services before getting married in the church?
  • In your view, is it better for a church to turn away a couple that doesn't meet its standards for marriage, or is it better to marry the couple and just try to be a good witness in the process?
  • Do you think there should be a stronger distinction between the state's legal recognition of marriage, and the church's moral recognition?

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I recently married a couple who had been together for twelve years and already had two children together.  They didn’t join the church and the long-term ministry I hoped for didn’t happen.  I don’t regret doing it, though, because as a people, we should support the decision those two made to be married rather than live in a way that is contrary to God’s intention.
  I was able to share the good news of Jesus and his love with them.  I was able to show them that love as we worked together.  Was it a loss?  No.  It was ministry to those who wouldn’t have heard the good news from me and experienced my love in any other way.

I believe the church should not only stay involed but become more involed. My daughter and her new husband were married by a Judge in our community. Our church would not marry them because of my son-in-law’s beliefs ( or lack of ), his church would marry them if they became members and agreed to attend for 1 year prior to marriage.
I prayed about it for some time and then realized that our Pastor was right and was following the word of the Bible when he refused to marry them.
More Pastors and church leaders should stand firm on their moral beliefs and not let money or society dictate to God’s Word

Ditto for your statements
Our church and pastor will not marry them if one of them is not born again Christian. The pastor own conviction is the most important in this issue

Wow, this is a stunningly bad idea on several fronts.

First, weddings are one of the few times people actually ask a church for help. It’s a major opportunity to pastorally counsel people in one of the great decisions of life. It’s also a major opportunity to preach the gospel in a senstive way, showing how marriage and life is all connected to God and his plan of redemption.

Second, it only fosters the sense of God being private, optional, and useless. We already have too strong a sense in the western world that religion is optional rather than central to the way we think about and live out our lives. If God created all things, sustains all things, invented people and sex and marriage and families and society, then he’s probably got something to do with how those things play out in real life.

So I have great difficulty with suggestions that pastors should just “bless” marriages as if God were the figurine on top of the cake rather than the chef. Likewise, I’m not a fan of legal vs. moral distinctions. They are quite connected, if not degrees of the same thing.

Marriage is a covenant with and established by God.
The Body of Christ cannot therefore disavow itself.
That “churches” are considering this only indicates man’s willfull disobedience.

I work for the Lord at a fairly large church and handle quite a few calls from people wanting to get married. Far and away, the most popular inquiry of non-members wanting to be married at “our” church is, “How much will it cost to use the building?”  For those who will be married by a pastor, counseling is required. 

There are some who won’t be married, not because they miss our standards, but because there is something Scripturally amiss that first needs to be addressed.  First are unbelievers who want to use our building simply because it looks nice and who don’t give a care about the things of God.  Next are couples living in sexual immorality wanting to make “it” official.  (One of our pastors was actually asked to marry a cohabitating couple who insisted they were Christians but refused to separate until their marriage could take place; he refused because the being “a good witness in the process”  was in standing firm on the Bible’s teachings on what sin is & isn’t).  I would like to pause here and note that while many couples wanting to be married may have already engaged in sex, there is a vast difference between flagrantly disobeying the Bible’s teachings by living a life of sexual immorality and flaunting that rebellious disobedience before others, versus falling into temptation, which many have done.  Our pastors will only marry a man & a woman.  Finally, there are believers who may desire to marry unbelievers.  Pastoral responsibility for not only the parishioner, but the action about to be performed for which God will hold the minister accountable, keeps our pastors from sanctioning these ceremonies. 

KOSTS, I agree wholeheartedly that the legal vs. moral distinction as untenable. These two are intrinsically related and you have a keen eye for detail to spot this false dichotomy which is really the heart of the matter.

Kosts, you make some good points! Your second point in particular is an excellent one.

However, let me play devil’s advocate on a few of your other points. Your first argument seems basically that the current system (in which most people, Christian or not, equate “marriage ceremony” with “a ceremony in a church”) provides an opportunity for the church to minister and reach out to people, and to teach them about the sanctity of the marriage relationship and how it reflects our relationship with God. But the question I must ask is, is there evidence that this is an *effective* ministry? The divorce rates in this country (again, among both Christians and non-Christians) is absolutely through the roof. The idea proposed in the article above may not be a good one, but I wonder how it could really be worse than the current situation, in which our culture overwhelmingly considers marriage to be an arrangement of convenience rather than a covenant before God. In fact, the prevalence of divorce and related troubles in this country makes me wonder if the church’s current way of overseeing marriage might actually be part of the problem in some way. Does that make sense? In that light, wouldn’t separating separating the civic aspect of marriage (getting a document signed by a judge) from the spiritual aspect (entering into a sacred covenant) be a way of calling attention to the extreme seriousness with which we are called to consider marriage? If we’re worried that people will stop taking the spiritual aspects of marriage seriously… I’m afraid the train has already left the station on that one.

And secondly, you note that you don’t like legal vs. moral distinctions. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? Under the current system, pastors are effectively agents of the state when it comes to marriage—a status that clergy don’t have when it comes to pretty much any other social function. Why?

I know I’m overdramatizing some of these questions. But marriage is one way in which the church is somewhat entangled with the government in an odd way, and I wonder if that’s a connection that could end up hurting the church in the long run.

I wouldn’t be quick to measure gospel-proclamation, even at weddings, in terms of ‘effectiveness,’ but rather in terms of faithfullness. This is what we’re called to do as a church.

It’s kinda like infant baptism (in my tradition, anyway). We don’t baptize to magically ‘save’ babies, nor do we insist that people can’t be part of the church until they know better. Rather, we baptize to acknowledge that God has already made promises to this child, promises that point to the cross, whether or not the child lives into the fullness of those promises. And some children don’t. Does that mean the baptism was ineffective? God’s Word is still at work to all involved.

So with weddings, they are gospel-proclaiming events, focused on marriage, that minister to all involved. They’re opportunities to counsel not only the bride and groom, but also everyone present. It’s a chance to remind a room full of people of what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like in their families.

So, if your complaint is that our culture has a sick view of marriage, why would we give up a significant opportunity to bring a medicinal perspective?  We can’t make choices for young couples, but we can honor them and the gospel at the same time. One hopes that the gospel-perspective weaves into the DNA of their marriage at this crucial time.

So while I don’t think easy metrics of effectiveness make for the best ministry, part of being faithful is doing our best to make a difference. That’s why most pastors I know now require weeks of pre-marital counseling. A wedding is too short a time to build a relationship and help shape their relationship. It’s an acknlowedgement that a wedding sermon doesn’t ‘divorce-proof’ marriages, and we have more medicine to bring.

I think the real challenge is for pastors to find the balance between hard-core gospel proclamation and speaking in ways that let the couple feel like they could belong to the Body of Christ. We can’t fall into the ‘civic duty’ trap, offering vague pleasantries about God and love, but neither should we confront them in such a way that they feel God and the church rejects them as people.

[By the way, researchers like the Barna Group have shown that divorce rates are about the same for those who are ‘born-again’ and those who are not. However, divorce rates drop significantly for couples with shared spiritual practices. Praying together and going to church together is literally a way to better divorce-proof your marriage. All the more reason to encourage good spiritual hygiene. But I digress…]

As to the legal vs. moral, I’m no philosopher of law. Yet it seem to me the legal is simply the codified moral, though mostly within the horizontal sphere. In a pluralistic society. We’ve simply tried to codify and enforce the morality of how we treat each other with the power of the state.

As to clergy acting as agents of the state in marriage, it is an odd thing, laregly due to the historical and uneasy seperation of church and state in post-Reformation Europe. Clergy are agents of the state, but I wouldn’t necessarily say their authority comes from the state as much as it is recognized by the state.

In short, I wouldn’t abandon such a significant opportunity to preach the gospel, leaving the state to become a mere relationship-registration service, just because it doesn’t have immediate effects. The gospel is like a little yeast, which can transform a whole lump of dough…

There already is a distinction between church marriages and civil marriages. It can be found, among other places, in the Supreme Court of Massachusetts decision which required the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The court was very explicit that it had jurisdiction only over civil marriages. Churches, protected by the First Amendment, remain free to marry or not marry whomever they please, whomever church faith and doctrine directs shall or shall not be married in the church. The distinction is important. Churches should not abandon the field of marriage, nor rely on the issuance of a state marriage license. The two should be almost irrelevant to each other. There are, for example, cases where an elderly couple, both widowed from previous marriages, wish to marry in the eyes of God, without disturbing financial arrangements each established with their deceased spouse for their respective children. That the state has joined two together may count for something in the eyes of God, but it is not binding on the church. That the church has joined two together in the eyes of God, need not depend on nor bind the actions of the state. Let each serve its proper purpose.

The distinction of civil vs. church unions held by some Christians today will be wrestled away in the legal wrangling of tomorrow as those who practice homosexuality, insist on their “rights” to non-discrimination by churches, those employed by parachurch ministries, churches, etc.  (Anybody remember the Salvation Army, a Christian organization, being legally challenged by homosexuals on its hiring policy?)  The unfairness of a homosexual couple having all the benefits and blessings of marriage in some states (including federal income tax breaks)  but not in others, will lead to a federal mandate legalizing homosexuality in all states eventually.  How I shudder to think what will happen when the federal government mandates what marriage is, because when this happens, every aspect of married life, including what parents teach their children (if, of course, they are permitted to bear) will be subject to that government.  Shades of GATTACA.

I think we as Christians are most unwise to leave the Biblical high ground in this matter and justify sexually immorality at any level.  Governmental law does one of two things:  it either protects the innocent and promotes the general welfare, or it promotes evil and protects those who practice it.  Make no mistake, once homosexual unions are the norm, those who stand on the Bible’s teachings of homosexuality as sin will be imprisoned, sued, silenced, dealt with as hate crime mongerers. 

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