Some Christians have responded to the court’s recent ruling in favor of same-sex marriage by calling for Christians to totally separate ‘civil’ marriage from ‘church’ marriage. As Kris Norris and Sam Speers put it in a recent blog post,
By combining civil requirements and the vows of holy matrimony into one ceremony and conscripting pastors to act as agents of the state in signing marriage licenses, we have failed to remember that civil marriage is only a legal contract conferring certain civil benefits upon a citizen couple; church marriage is a binding commitment of two Christians before the church community and God. The good of civil marriage rests on sociological and economic principles, whereas the good of Christian marriage rests in the hope of sanctification: that these two individuals will serve God better together than alone. These two types of marriage, while often overlapping, are not the same. They entail different requirements and pursue different ends.
Norris interprets his words through his deeds: as a pastor he refuses to sign any state marriage licenses, as a ‘witness to the world about the true character of Christian marriage.’
The argument here is not between conservatives and liberals. While some conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have made similar calls, other conservatives want to continue fighting the legalization of same-sex marriage. On the other hand, even as Norris and Speers argue for the separation of civil and church marriage, they give a nod in their blog to liberal evangelicals who have embraced same-sex marriage. The question they raise is not the morality or legality of same-sex marriage itself, but rather the proper relationship between church and state.
Norris and Speers are good people, careful thinkers, and friends of mine. But I think their proposal is a very bad idea. Consider some of the difficulties it faces.
First, it must reckon with the scriptures, which certainly know no explicit distinction between these two kinds of marriage. Nor is it easy to sustain an implicit one. Jesus himself answers a question about marriage by appealing to Adam and Eve, implying that marriage is a single institution in which all human beings share. Moreover, Paul recognizes that holy marriages may exist between believers and unbelievers:
…if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:12-14)
Whatever the exact cases this ruling covers, surely it applies at least to the straightforward case in which one member of an already married couple becomes a Christian. Not only does Paul take for granted that such a couple is ‘married’ without a church wedding, but — whatever exactly this means — he explicitly teaches that this marriage (and family) becomes holy simply because even a single Christian participates in it. A sharp distinction between ‘civil’ and ‘church’ marriage would make this scripture unintelligible.
Second, their proposal faces various practical difficulties. The stakes are very high, since marriage brings into play very particular ethical relationships and obligations, summarized by the commandment, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Consider the kinds of cases that will surely arise. A civilly married couple converts to Christianity: must they be remarried? If they don’t, should they be considered ‘church’ married and, if not, would it be a sin for them to continue in a sexual relationship? May they separate and have a ‘church’ marriage with another partner without divorcing their ‘civil’ spouse? Or: a man has a church marriage with one woman and then a civil marriage with another. Which marriage is valid and why? Or are both? Or: a straight couple is married in a liberal church that also performs same-sex weddings. Should a conservative church recognize their marriage as a ‘church’ marriage? Are Christians with illegitimate ‘church’ marriages committing a sin if they have sex?
I do not mean that there are no good answers to these kinds of questions, but I do think those making this sort of proposal need to be prepared to bring about a complex casuistic ethical and legal framework for dealing with them. Without an institutional mechanism for negotiating them, is it not likely that the end result will be a severe reduction of marriage to yet another matter of private conscience?
This leads to a third problem: the proposal presupposes a dubious libertarian philosophy of the state. For Norris and Speers, civil marriage is only a kind of ‘contract’ conferring ‘civil’ benefits to ‘citizens.’ They imagine that Christian individuals may stand aloof from these civil institutions, with the autonomy to opt in or opt out as they please. (There is a certain analogy here to libertarians who try to opt out of the state by withholding their taxes). But this libertarian tendency to reduce human family relationships to merely contractual ones is one that Christians ought to firmly reject. Although marriage, adoption, and other family relationships often involve contracts, we ought to insist that such contracts may constitute families whose reality and significance go much deeper. This is one reason that, as my lawyer wife tells me, marriage is considered part of family law rather than contract law. Against libertarianism, the state and its laws are one of the basic mechanisms through which humans in society extend (or withhold) recognition to others, a recognition without which families often cannot exist. To defend civil marriage is to defend the fact that state laws may transcend themselves by constituting realities, like families, whose significance is not exhausted by the ends of the state.
Finally, their proposal imposes a sharp dualism between two very different kinds of concerns: civil concerns, oriented towards ‘sociological and economic’ matters, and the Christian concern with ‘sanctification.’ This dualism is simply the reflux of their libertarian political philosophy, for they have defined the church’s realm (here, its marriages) as that mode of social life that exists outside the concerns of the state. (In the same way, an older generation of Christians defined religion as a ‘private’ expression outside the ‘public’ concerns of the state.) But here too the Thomist principle applies: ‘grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.’ Sociological and economic ends are themselves integral to the transformation brought about in the kingdom of God. (Norris and Speers certainly know this, but they have not applied it to the question of marriage.)
Only where a sharp distinction between these realms obtains could a pastor’s general refusal to sign all civil marriage licenses be a witness to the true character of Christian marriage. But if human families in their concrete social and economic relations — including their marriages — are themselves one of the things transformed by grace, then a better theological witness would be a particular refusal to participate in specific marriages that are inconsistent with Christian truth — or, in the spirit of St. Valentine, a particular support of marriages that the broader society wrongly refuses to recognize. At most, Norris and Speers might commend a general refusal to participate in civil marriages as part of a strategic response by conservative pastors to this particular moment in history (though I suspect such pastors will be judged harshly by their grandchildren).
Norris and Speers’ sharp and principled distinction between ‘civil’ and ‘church’ marriage is too narrow on both sides: in its reduction of state marriage to a contract and in its implication that real marriage might be a possession of Christians alone.
Marriage is a human institution, one that we both share and contest with others from various times, cultures, and religions. The problem of recognizing legitimate sexual unions & family units and investing them with significance is one in which all human beings have a stake and one whose resolution must be sought in human society.
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