Should Civil and Church Marriage be Separated?

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.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Should Civil and Church Marriage be Separated?

  1. This is a great discussion and I’m grateful to Mark for continuing this conversation on what I think is an important and overlooked issue for Christians. I want to note, however, that the issue of distinguishing between two types of marriage—at least for me—is not in response to the SCOTUS ruling. I actually think the ruling changes nothing in regards to this issue (I for one welcome the ruling). This is an argument, as Mark well knows, that I’ve been pressing for years.

    Because I’m a bit late in responding I’ll simply offer a few micro-responses to Mark’s explicit challenges, and save any meta-reflection for another time.

    First, regarding scripture: I agree with Karl Shuve that it seems a risky enterprise to make direct translations from the situation of a fledgling and often oppressed Christian community in the midst of the Roman Empire to our current context in which the state grants religious leaders the authority to pronounce marriages on its behalf. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make normative extrapolations, but we must do so slowly and cautiously; I’m not sure the degree to which scripture’s explicit passages on marriage can speak to this present reality. We may have to make the same sort of interpretive moves we do in order to make normative judgments about new realities like abortion, gay marriage, immigration policy, etc. I don’t deny that the church can accept the reality of civil families in the way Paul does here and that they could even be sanctified through their eventual Christian participation, but that does not necessarily mean that we should identify them with the sort of relationship that is entered into upon explicitly Christian understandings.

    Regarding the critique of a libertarian approach to the state: In light of the language of Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Obergefell case, I will admit that the state certainly regards marriage as more than merely contractual; there are important moral foundations to the institution that the state regards as ingredient to the maintenance of a good society. . I would, therefore, question whether the significance of marriage in the eyes of the state is actually exhausted by the ends of the state. (Kennedy offers these ‘secular’ goods of marriage in such a way that he ends up denigrating the single life, something that could only be done if his conception of marriage is constructed on particular moral foundations.) The problem is that these goods of marriage, or vision of marriage, or moral foundations of marriage (while overlapping to a degree) are based on a different vision and different understanding of the end of marriage than Christian understandings—as I explained in my blog post. The two types of marriage are simply directed to different ends and oriented around different foundational values.

    Regarding the charge of dualism: I agree with John’s point that Christian marriage is in no way a private matter simply because it is a separate form of relationship than civil marriage. Arguing for a distinction is not the same as arguing for sectarianism (though the two often seem to be conflated in critiques again this sort of position) or arguing for the privatization of marriage. If the truth of Christianity cannot be divorced from our witness to that truth, then Christian marriage is public and political simply because of its distinction from civil marriage.

    Finally to the difficult practical questions Mark offers: 1) Yes, I think a civilly married couple that converts should reconstitute their relationship as a specifically Christian marriage that seeks to uphold a Christian vision of marriage. 2) I suppose that in principle a person could be civilly married to one person and church married to another, but this seems like a practically imprudent practice, and a person ought to have good reasons for doing so. 3) You raise a good concern, in this hypothetical situation, about local churches not recognizing marriages performed in other (radically more liberal or more conservative) churches. I admit, this is not something I’ve thought about, and could be an unfortunate consequence of disentangling the two types of marriage, and would simply speak to our propensity for division among Christians.

    1. Thanks so much for you thoughtful comments, Kris. A few brief replies:

      On the subject of dualism, I do not mean that your dualism is identical to the public/private one, only that in a similar matter, it is the result of simply making the church the ‘other’ of the state. (I do think the concrete tendency of your view is towards a ‘privitization’ of marriage, but that is a separate issue.) So my charge of dualism is focused on your claim that ‘the two types of marriage are simply directed to different ends and oriented around different foundational values.’ The dualism arises here. For — granting for the moment that the ‘ends’ and ‘values’ towards which a practice is directed determine its nature — it would only follow that there are two distinct kinds of marriage if these ends and values are distinct. In fact, of course, you grant that they overlap, and so I suppose a better way of putting my claim is that, if they do overlap, I do not see how they can justify the sharp distinction in kind you want to draw; and conversely, insofar as you draw this sharp distinction, it seems to me that it entails a ‘dualism’ (between e.g. the ‘sanctified’ and the ‘social and economic’) that you would not really want to accept.

      It is also worth noting, however, that it is dubious that the ends and values towards which a practice are directed determine its character. The Bible, for example, can identify a plurality of ends and values towards which ‘the Sabbath’ is directed (a memorial of creation; to provide rest for workers; because ‘you were slaves’; as a sign of Israel’s sanctity), but these seem quite distinct from the question of what the Sabbath is (a day of rest from labor, as defined by specific laws). Would you really want to infer that two Jews or even two communities who observe the same Sabbath laws have ‘different types’ of Sabbath because one interprets it in purely secular terms as a means of rest (as, say, Philo did), while the other does so in richly theological terms? Or a secular example: people play football for many ends (to get in shape; because it’s fun; to make money; to learn character and teamwork). But this does not seem very relevant to the question of what ‘types’ of football there are. It’s also dubious, I think, to suppose there is such a thing as a ‘fundamental value’ underlying such practices. Practices have a life of their own, the ends and values they realize shift — and this includes Christian marriage. Should we adopt different terminology every time this happens? (‘He is playing fun football, but she is playing exercise football’) I think to do so misunderstands wherein the identity of a practice lies.

      Finally, I want to be clear about my use of scripture. I certainly do not think Paul’s view of marriage can be directly ‘translated’ into our present context; Karl’s warning is well taken there. When I said, ‘a sharp distinction between “civil” and “church” marriage would make this scripture unintelligible,’ I mean something more like this. I take Paul as offering a particular judgment about a particular case, a judgment that is binding upon us rather like a court precedent. So I’m asking, what judgments in OUR case are relevantly analogous to Paul’s judgment in his? I interpret a rule, like your distinction between ‘civil’ and ‘church’ marriage, as a claim about wherein this analogy lies. When positing such a rule, I do not think one has to show that Paul ‘thought’ that or ‘said’ something to that effect. But I do assume one has to show that, given such a rule, one would decide Paul’s cases more or less as he did. When I say such a rule would ‘make this scripture unintelligible,’ I mean that I doubt there is any plausible reading of this text that would enable its judgment to fit your rule. That is, I do not see how your rule would ever permit ANY church leader to casually assume, as Paul seems to, that a Christian and a non-Christian are ‘married’ without qualification. Notice that you judge in such a case that they should be remarried, while Paul rules: they are married, and need not get divorced. While this difference is not in itself a deal breaker, I do think you need to explain carefully what exactly are the differences Paul’s case and our own. Are the ‘ends’ of Roman non-church marriage, legal or extra-legal, really so different than those of the contemporary American state? Are its ‘fundamental values’? I doubt it; and so it seems that if your principle ought really to be determinative, Paul should not have said the things he said, and to that extent, is inconsistent with the scriptures.

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