Friday, February 12, 2010

The Two Kinds of Marriage.

     Recently, I have begun to think about marriage. This is not entirely true. For the last three to four years, my mind has been consumed by marriage, mostly my own, but now that I have joined the ranks of the matrimonially joined I've begun to think and work through what I believe a marriage is, both culturally and theologically. I've done this because as a guy who wants to plant a church the question will inevitably come up: "Will you perform our wedding?" 

     Tony Jones wrote a blog post in January of 2010 stating that he believes that pastors should give up the right to perform legal marriages. For the benefit of those who do not know me (including Tony Jones) he and I disagree on most of the things he says, but in this case, I think he hit the nail right on the head. His post finally put into words something I have been trying to articulate for about two years. Here is where I have landed.

     There are two kinds of marriage (thanks to Mr. Jones for giving them names) there is "Legal Marriage" and "Sacramental Marriage". Legal marriages then, are whatever the State (in my case Canada) says it is. In Canada, the legal definition reads:
"Marriage, for civil purposes, is the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others."
     Legal marriage, then, is a contract. Entered into freely by two people who have decided to become legally married for whatever reason. A legal marriage is also relatively easy to end. Here in Canada, for example a marriage can be ended by three main means: 1) Adultery 2) Physical or mental Cruelty or 3) After having lived separately for a year. It's that easy. 

     Sacramental Marriage, then, as the name suggests, must conform to the biblical paradigm of marriage as set out by God and not legal authority. So then what is the Biblical paradigm? After a number of years, studying and pondering, I have come up with what I believe strongly to be the biblical paradigm for sacramental marriage.  We know that God created sacramental marriage to be between a man and a woman in Genesis 2, but what many people fail to realize is that not only is sacramental marriage designed to be heterosexual, it was also a gift given to God's people (Adam and Eve in this case) therefore we can presume that sacramental marriage is to be between a Christian man and a Christian woman. these are the prerequisites: 1) Heterosexual and 2) Christian. Once those prerequisites are met, there are three criteria that meet the basis for a biblical marriage covenant.

1) Commitment: Obviously, we start with a desire to marry and a commitment on the part of both the man and the woman to be married. Practically, this manifests as the engagement and marriage vows.

2) Community: This commitment between the bride and groom is to be made and affirmed by a community. Practically, this would work itself out as the actual marriage ceremony being witnessed by both the body of believers the couple is a part of and family. This criteria is crucial since without it, any couple can simply take steps 1 and 3 and say: "In God's eyes, we're married" as an excuse for pre-marital sex.

3) Consummation: Also known as: "The reason we signed up for this". This one is simple, without consummation, there is no covenant, it's just plain Biblical. Not speaking, of course, to extreme cases where sex is not possible, but getting young couples to consummate their marriage won't be a problem.

Briefly then: For there to be a sacramental marriage, there must be a commitment that is affirmed by the community of faith and consummated by the couple for a covenant of marriage to exist.

     With all of that said, where does this leave our loving couple and their pastor on the wedding day? Well we can't move on without mentioning Romans 13 and following the governmental authorities. In short, (again, this is in Canada) if a couple wants to be sacramentaly married, they must submit to legal marriage as well. Practically then, the couple would go to a Justice, become legally married, and then come to the church (or whatever venue) and have a sacramental wedding.

     Is this method more practically complicated than the current setup? Yes. Will this mean that pastors who refuse this ability to solemnize legal marriages will also lose the privilege of for example, signing as a guarantor? Yes (probably). Is this distinction necessary? Yes. The more Canada's laws and culture drift away from Christendom (for good or bad) and Christian ideals the more the church will have to take a stand for what God has ordained and still submit to our government.

     We live in a country where the divorce rate among believers is statistically equal the our secular neighbours. This must not be allowed to continue, it affects out witness which affects our Mission. Let us render to Caesar (or here, the Queen) what is Caesar's and keep God's gift to his people of sacramental marriage sacred.


  1. While I don't find your arguments for not performing legal marriages to be compelling, I think the three criteria for meeting biblical marriage that you listed are excellent and more clearly thought out than I have been able to state them in the past myself. Well done.

    -Bill Janzen

  2. Well, I don't think I feel compelled by your arguments either. I think there are a few things to consider. First, historically, the arguments that marriage is only for Christians is false. Adam and Eve were not Christians, they were not even part of the Nation of Israel. I understand that you are drawing some conclusions but I think they go too far. Other nations practiced marriage and there does not seem to be any condemnation of their marriage practices. On top of that the marriages that the Israelites practiced were very legal, documents, ceremony, etc. On top of that I would think that the NT would have more to say on the issue if it was for Christians only.

    In our day and age I think you are really asking a larger question. To what extent do we, as Christians, and especially as Pastors, engage in or participate in the legal and political systems around us. With this in mind I think your question opens up several more decisions that would have to be made. Historically, groups of Christians have made those decisions and we call them separatists because of the way they went about it.

    I think we should engage in the political world by praying for the leaders (1 Timothy 2) so that we can go about preaching the Gospel and building the church. If that means that we perform marriages for unbelievers so that they have some sort of connection with and introduction with you and the church, so be it. If it means that you only perform marriages for those people inside the church that you know are Christian, then so be it. I don't think either way is wrong, but both ways have the potential for wrong.

    Hopefully I didn't ramble too much. Love ya Kevin!

  3. Hey Kevin, great post! I agree with most of what you said, but I was a little confused and wondering if you could flesh out in more detail what you meant by, and how you arrived at, saying that a prerequisite for a biblical marriage covenant is that the man and woman are Christians. I may be misunderstanding here so I was curious, are you saying that in God's eyes only sacramental marriage is legit and legal marriages are not? How do you back up saying that sacramental marriage was given to Christians by using the example of Adam and Eve when they are the father/mother of all people - Christian and not? Just curious as to your thoughts.

    Kait Cotnoir

  4. The exposition of the three C's of marriage are great - future three point sermon?

    The division between the political discourse on marriage and the theological discourse on marriage is accurate, but I don't think Christians need to withdraw quite so much to form a dichotomy. What I mean is that marriage is a trancultural phenomena, each culture/community expressing it's own particularity of such. Christianity is one such expression, or set of expressions. Given that there is an element of marriage that is governed and enhanced by legal discourse (for instance the protection laws that govern divorce, which the church does not seem equipped to arbitrate), if Canadian culture does truly value diversity and the democratic search for consensus in diversity with its political discourse, Canadians should value at some level the Christian voice on marriage. However also Christian's should respect the secular democratic framework that they speak in (while also advocating that the Christian vision of marriage perhaps accomplishes the intent of marriage far better than others).

    As this applies to the pastor and the layman, I don't see the necessity of withdrawing from the political elements of marriage that the government assists in. I see the relationship as more dialectical than dichotomous.

    But if a non-Christian couple were to come to me and ask me to perform a marriage for them, I would probably ask them to what degree they agree with the Christian vision of marriage that I should feel comfortable with performing a marriage for someone that is outside of the Christian community. Where I would draw the line, I am not sure.

    As an ordained minister, the title reverend does give many secular functions that the government realizes (for instance, pastors can sign for passport processes). So, I would not say that Christian pastors necessarily should not perform weddings for non-Christians. Ordained pastors are given privileges by the government in act in ways that benefit all communities in Canada. In this way, pastors are given a unique opportunity to provide a sort of hegemonic leadership to non-Christians that I think provides a great way to share the Christian vision of marriage and life in general, as well as to perform a legal function that God blesses as a transcultural means to human flourishing.

    So, I would hold that the sacrament of marriage is a sacrament to all people, God's gift to all people to ensure human flourishing. Also, through it, recognition of the value and necessity of love is illustrated (to which Christians again have a particular and ultimate vision of). However, a particular understanding of this sacrament, fulfilled by faith in the Ultimate Sacrament, is recognized by the Christian community that Christians ought to uphold as Christians.

    As far as the whole Christians ought not to marry non-Christians part, I would probably say that marriage to a non-Christian is not strickly forbidden by scripture, but placed in the realm of wisdom, that doing so is unwise. However, sometimes love and marriage is "unwise".

    Remember the prophet Hosea was instructed by God to marry a godless prostitute (not that such a command is normative for us). Through doing so, God's love was illustrated to the nations and I believe that prostitute found redemption.

    I have a professor at school that is married to a non-Christian. while I have not asked him too much about that matter, I get the sense that he married her despite her non-believing because ultimately he felt God brought their love together. He felt obligated to love her no matter what. While I cannot see myself doing something like that, I find his commitment to unconditional love respectable, especially given the fact that it seems like their marriage is going quite well and she has gained a deeper respect for faith through his commitment to her.

  5. To be honest, you haven't really supported the reason why pastors should not take the license to marry people. Do you believe that pastors would be sued or jailed for refusing to marry gay people or something? Unless that is the case, why shouldn't pastors make use of the opportunity to add legal legitimacy to the covenant between the two people they marry?

    Ideally, the church should live in as much harmony as possible with those who do not believe. If the government starts suing or jailing people because of conscientiously objecting to performing marriages they deem to be out of line with what God wants, then I guess we have to live with less harmony unfortunately. I don't think the church should initiate the withdrawal though.

    - Craig Simmons

  6. I like the post as a whole. In response to the objections to pastors withdrawing from the phase of legal marriage, I think what he's getting at is that as long as pastors perform the legal obligation, then it places them under some jurisdiction of the government, in which case you have cases as have been seen where pastors and churches are getting sued for refusing to perform marriages of homosexual couples or even "unevenly yoked" marriages. It's part of what Tony Jones was getting at in his post, the unavoidable tie of government and church when the church is performing a government-sanctioned institution.


  7. Wow, lots of good, good stuff here. Thanks everyone for the helpful dialogue thus far. I'll try and address some of the comments now since I'll be gone for a week and don't really want to get flooded when I get back.

    Bill: thanks for the comments dude, some of what you brought up was mentioned by a couple others, so I'll deal with it there.

    Dan: I'm not making a case for ordained pastors to throw away their ability to solemnize legal marriages, I'm just trying to illustrate a very real difference between a legal contract and a biblical covenant. Also I never said Adam and Eve were Christians. I said Marriage was a gift to God's people, in today's context, that applies to Christians, OT was the nation of Israel, but remember, marriage was given as a gift pre-fall, therefore Adam and Eve were God's people. I've heard people apply the label of Christian to old covenant Jews as well (Mark Driscoll does this a lot) It's clever theologically, but unnecessary and potentially confusing depending on your audience. As for involvement in politics and government, I agree wholeheartedly that we ought to pray for our leaders, but I'm also a proponent of the separation of Church and State. I don't want to live in a Christian Nation, I want to live in a nation of Christians.

    Kait: I'm speaking in ideals here. Just as breathing is a gift from God the father to His children. That doesn't mean that non-Christians ought not breathe! It's part of common grace just like marriage. God blesses couples who are legally married and not Christian all the time. (Otherwise there would be no children born outside Christian homes) The ideal manifestation of a biblical, covenantal marriage is still two people of opposite genders who have committed to covenant within a community and then consummated. That doesn't mean that everything else is illegitimate, but anything else is different, and falls outside the biblical definition. (as I understand it)

  8. pt 2.

    Spencer: Yeah the inside joke was that I couldn't hold this position until I nailed down the as to your (lengthy) comment...

    You're totally right about the fact that marriage is a trans-cultural phenomena, however that phenomena originated in Genesis 2 and every other expression is a copy of the original and the original is the ideal.

    As for the questions of non-Christians wanting to be married in a church by a pastor, my immediate question to that couple is the same as to the couple who wants me to baptize their infant: why? This came up in my pastor's office as we discussed this post. Your point about hegemonic leadership is well taken however in the case of infant baptism many people who are outside the faith tend to view that as "traditional" at best and with some kind of superstitious "It's good for my baby" at worst. (Covenant theology notwithstanding ) I fear that this has carried over into the realm of marriage as well; the idea that it's traditional or even "safe" to have a church wedding. The church is not the purveyor of tradition.

    as a side note, I admire your professor's view of his own marriage. It sounds as though he views it as a covenant similar to Hosea (not that I'm insinuating anything about his wife, I'm sure she's lovely.) while his wife has no reason to see a covenant and can live by contract.

    Craig: It's unlikely that the government will start jailing pastors for refusing to marry gay couples. The most likely negative outcome to that court case is that Canada removes the clergy's ability to solemnize legal marriage. My point is that there are two different kinds of marriage, a Biblical one and a Secular one. The church's witness is hampered when we will solemnize a legal marriage in which the couple have no covenant between them (like two non-Christians) but will then turn around and discriminate and refuse to perform a legal gay marriage on biblical grounds when both are the same. More clear?

    well that's it for now, I leave in about 30 mins...I'm going to go relax... see you all next week.


  9. Kev, you've got to remember too that the "Mariage" of the two marriages goes back to just after the time of Constantine. Until then there was religious and civil marriage, the Christianizing of the Roman Empire simply made it easier to merge the two. I personally don't think we as the church should tenaciously hold onto role as administrators of secular marriage. Some people argue that marriage is just a piece of paper, and realistically in Canada today the difference between civil marriage and common-law is barely distinguishable. The question is, how do our sacramental marraiges look different from the strictly civil marriages in the world around us?

  10. Kevin: that is clearer. I agree that it makes pastors out to be biggots if they will marry people who are completely non-confessional of the Christian faith yet refuse to marry people who are practicing a gay lifestyle. A pastor should be refusing to marry anyone that is obviously not willing to view it as a promise to God.

    I maintain though, that unless the government will levy negative consequences on pastors for reserving their solemnizing privileges for those within their confessional community, there is no reason to refuse the license.

    At this point, the idea of marriage in Canada seems to be more for enforcing divorce laws than anything else, so if the government starts taking legal actions against pastors for choosing to selectively perform marriages, I would be completely happy to see Christians objecting to the whole thing and just letting the government consider us common law after our weddings with our families and church communities. The piece of paper is irrelevant at this point anyways.

    - Craig

  11. I agree with Craig. If the government's definition of marriage has drifted so far from the Christian definition that its no longer recognizable, there is no compelling reason for Christians to bother to observe it and tacitly support the caricature it has made of Christian marriage.

    -David Fuller

  12. So only a Christian couple can have a marriage that isn't just a legal contract? You should tell that to a Hindu couple who thinks that their marriage has more significance. Typical arrogant Christian - you seem to think that Christians created and have the rights to everything.

  13. Hindus can go to their own spiritual leaders if they want to get married. If they are Hindu I doubt they would go to a Judeo Christian Church to get married anyway. In anycase, I think this is a good write up and needs to be in the minds of Christians everywhere.