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The Marriage of Church and State

The Marriage of Church and State
October 18, 2019

The following article is written by Dr. Branson Parler. Branson serves as Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and also serves as Director of Faith Formation at Fourth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Find more of his work at bransonparler.com


What does marriage mean? And how does our practice of weddings shape how we think about the meaning of marriage? A while back I worked through that question a bit on this blog, suggesting especially that, for Christians, a wedding is a worship service with God at the center rather than a stand-alone service with a couple at the center.

 

In practice, we know that our weddings generally do double duty; they are both a religious and a civil ceremony. But this can be deceiving. Why? Because what the state calls “marriage” and what the church calls “marriage” are two different things. However, our current practice of weddings often obscures that more than it clarifies it.

 

That is, our current practice of weddings takes two distinct things—a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony—and mashes them up in a way that confuses us. This unhelpful mash-up is to blame, in part, for conservative Christians working so hard to make the state definition of marriage match the Bible’s and for progressive Christians working so hard to make the church’s view of marriage conform to the broader culture’s view. Both groups think that there has to be ONE single view of marriage across the board, common to Christians and non-Christians and held by church and state alike.

 

But what if the church focused first on clarifying the Christian view of marriage and distinguishing it from the state’s view of marriage? This greater clarity would extend to helping us see that a real difference in wedding ceremonies points to deeper differences in what we mean by “marriage.”

 

One basic difference is that a Christian wedding always has a vertical element, whereas a civil ceremony is totally horizontal. That is, a Christian wedding service always has a clear reference to God, whether through Scripture reading, prayer, a sermon, or words of challenge. This is because, for Christians, marriage is God’s idea, not ours. It’s not a social reality we create but an institution woven into the fabric of creation. A civil ceremony, on the other hand, doesn’t have that. Marriage is a thoroughly human institution, invented by humans and carrying whatever meaning humans give it.


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Is it fair to label these two radically different views “marriage”? Perhaps, in the same way that we might call both a skyscraper and a shanty “buildings.” Whatever basic similarities they have, close examination reveals that their differences are greater than their similarities.

 

Here’s another key difference: Christian weddings take words and promises really seriously, whereas civil ceremonies do not. Current state laws allow for no-fault divorce. In other words, you can promise to love and care for another person forever, and break that promise for no particular reason. This is an area where the church/state mashup has been really damaging to Christians. While I hear a lot of Christians crying out against same-sex marriage, I don’t hear them decrying no-fault divorce. But why should two Christians consider themselves divorced merely because the state says they are?

 

Here’s where Jesus gets challenging. In Matthew 19, he points out that even the Old Testament law accommodates peoples’ hardness of heart, allowing for divorce for a variety of reasons. In light of the new reality brought about by his kingdom, however, Jesus says that his followers must have an incredibly high view of marriage, one that cannot be dissolved for just any reason.

 

Our current practice of wedding and divorce renders the actual words of the wedding ceremony pretty pointless and meaningless. For Christians, this is serious stuff. Words are incredibly powerful! One key way that God reveals himself is as a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. A God who speaks words and who faithfully accomplishes in Jesus what he has promised. The vows of marriage and a marriage that faithfully lives out those vows are an embodied picture of the relationship between God’s words of promise and his fulfillment of those words in Jesus.

 

When we fail to take the words of marriage vows seriously, when we allow the state’s me-first, no-fault view of divorce to prevail, we not only undermine marriage, but undermine what marriage is meant to point to: the faithfulness of Christ.

 

This is why the whole church should have an interest in making sure marriages succeed—because marriages that succeed by walking through difficulty and suffering are a sure sign and pointer to Christ. From the beginning, then, Christians ought to acknowledge that our marriages are not merely under the jurisdiction of the state but under the Lordship of Jesus. But if they are under the Lordship of Jesus, we’ll have a different view of why we get married, why we stay married, and under what conditions we’d get divorced.

 

If that’s true, then, these differences regarding what marriage actually is should result in differences in our practice of weddings. Our call is not to force the rest of the culture to buy into a Christian vision of marriage; our call is to embody faithfully the Christian vision of marriage, recognizing that God uses his people’s faithfulness to draw others to the way of life and true flourishing.

 

So what should our weddings say? They should acknowledge God as the creator and sustainer of marriage. They should make it clear that our marriages are centered around God’s kingdom. They should make it clear that the church is the community within which we live out our calling to love. And finally, they should make it clear that Jesus, not the state, has ultimate jurisdiction over our lives and our marriages. What better way to say all this then putting weddings right in the midst of our Sunday worship services? Now that would really say something.