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The Church Should Stay Out of the Marriage Business

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My friend, Bruce Reyes-Chow, wrote a post recently arguing that the government should get out of the marriage business. And I agree with him. Sort of. I think that the Church should get out of the marriage business. Basically, I think it's a sinful practice that clergypersons act as agents of the state when they form legal contracts by enacting marriages that the government recognizes. If the church quits performing legal marriages, then the government can get on with the business of equalizing marriage rights in our country for same sex relationships, and churches can perform sacred rites for whomever they want. In other words, let's build the wall of separation higher.

In 2008, after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, I blogged about my support for gay and lesbian persons and their right to be married. If there's one thing I've noticed in the time since, it's been how few people paid attention to the nuances of my position. So I thought I'd take the opportunity to write a bit more about it now.

It is very odd to me that in the U.S. clergy act as agents of the government at weddings. In my state, for instance, the bride and groom apply for the marriage license at the county court house, but they don't actually sign the license. Instead, it's signed by a member of the clergy and by two witnesses. And, of course, without the clergy signature, it is invalid.

When I talk to pastors and priests about this, almost all of them express extreme discomfort at this situation, for it actually requires the clergyperson to act as an extension of the state. And that conflicts with the theology held by many pastors, Calvinist and Arminian, Protestant and Catholic.

The reason for their discomfort, of course, is that in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, those in the roles of priests and prophets have used their position to challenge the governing bodies. But once you are an agent of that body -- which you are when you legally marry two people -- you lose some integrity in that prophetic role.

Further, the clergyperson is potentially at the beck and call of the government in this role.

And most problematic, from my perspective, is that the clergyperson, with the stroke of a pen, makes legal a contract that s/he has no ability or potential to end. And having gone through a divorce, I can tell you that extricating oneself from the legal contract that is marriage in our society is no mean feat. And the clergyman who married us was, understandably, not around to help unravel what he had helped establish.

I say all this to underscore what a strange thing it is in our culture that pastors, priests and rabbis, who would otherwise proudly proclaim their independence from the government, regularly act as agents of the government at wedding ceremonies.

Were we to separate legal and sacramental marriage, it would solve all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the growing discomfort that many of us have that legal marriage is available only to some responsible adults who are in monogamous relationships. To recapitulate in short what I've written in the past:

  • There is no "historic" institution of marriage; it has been a fluid concept for thousands of years, changing with time and across cultures
  • Our society has determined that monogamy is good, so we incentivize it in various ways
  • It's a plain reality that gay and lesbian couples are among us, and they're not going away. So let's afford them similar incentives toward monogamy by allowing them to enter the binding contract that we call "legal marriage"
  • This will not implicate what any congregation or denomination considers a "sacramental marriage"

Here's an analogy: As Christians, we don't agree with the production of pornography, for it generally degrades women and debases the beauty of human sexuality. But we don't continually protest against it, and we surely don't legislatively fight to have it banned. Why? Because we consider the First Amendment right to free speech to be more important. When we put it in the scales, we believe so strongly in the First Amendment that we are willing to live with pornography.

I say the same goes for same-sex marriage. Many Christians may not like it, but our desire for people to live chaste, monogamous lives should outweigh our distaste for homosexual sex (which, quite honestly, is what most Christians disagree with). In other words, I'm asking Christians more conservative than I on this issue to consider living with legal same sex-marriage in order to encourage monogamy among gay and lesbian persons.

And to reiterate, this will not implicate any church's position on whom they sacramentally marry, if clergy stop performing legal marriages.

So, what do you say pastors (and priests and rabbis)? Will you join me and refuse to legally marry people?

A version of this post was originally published on Tony's Theoblogy.

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