It's important to trace the history of marriage within the Western Christian tradition to understand the ironic conundrum with which Americans find themselves today.
Early Christians in the first through third century understood marriage to be a union between one man and one woman created by God as a consummated partnership described in Genesis 2. Early Christian leaders, such as the Apostle Paul, explained that marriage was more than just a union between two people. It was an act of worship that pointed to Christ's sacrificial relationship with the church (Ephesians 5). Therefore, marriage was not about a contract or a financial engagement as had been the custom for centuries prior, but a sacred union that should reflect God's love. Christ turned the accepted cultural norms about marriage on its head.
Later, in the fourth century, Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, instituted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This act formalized Christian customs and grew the responsibility of the Roman church, which over time became formally responsible for performing weddings.
It wasn't until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the recording of marriages and establishing of rules for marriage became a function of the state. Martin Luther, the Catholic priest who initiated the Reformation in Germany said that marriage was a "worldly thing ... that belongs to the realm of government." A similar opinion was expressed by John Calvin, his Swiss counterpart. Calvin and his colleagues reformulated Christian marriage by enacting the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, which imposed "The dual requirements of state registration and church consecration to constitute marriage" as valid.
By the 17th century, many of the Protestant European countries' governments were responsible for instituting marriage.
English Puritans who rejected the Church of England's view of marriage and immigrated to America in the early 1600s, believed that marriage was a civil contract, not a religious ceremony. The law they instituted required that marriage be "agreed" or "executed" (not "performed" or "solemnized") before a magistrate, not a minister. They also legalized divorce if the terms of the marriage covenant were broken. These customs became the model for marriage throughout New England. Other parts of colonial America followed different traditions -- Virginians followed the Anglican view of marriage, Quakers brought their own version to Delaware, and Catholics instituted their belief in Maryland and other states.
Unlike its European counterparts, which instituted civil marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States left the issue of marriage to the states. Marriage was not codified until 1996 through the Defense of Marriage Act. In fact, marriage today resembles a mélange of western Christian marriage traditions within a federalist system.
Since 2004, six states have granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire New York, Vermont and Washington, D.C.). Washington and Maryland recently passed laws to grant same-sex marriage licenses, which voters may overturn in November. In California, same-sex marriage could be legally performed between June 16 and Nov. 4, 2008, until voters passed Proposition 8, which prohibited it. As of May 8, North Carolina voters passed a gay marriage ban. To date, 12 states prohibit same-sex marriage by statute and 30 by state constitution. On May 9, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to express his support for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
How did we get in this quagmire?
Were it not for the Protestant Reformation, marriage would not be considered a civil institution today. Had Christians followed the early church's example, marriage would never have been thrust into the realm of the government at all.
In light of this, Christians find themselves in an ironic and divided situation. As citizens of a secular country they must be licensed by the state to validate a practice that is rooted in a religious belief. Should this be the case? Should a practice rooted in a Judeo-Christian faith even be under the auspices of government? If marriage had been left to the church, the church could marry those who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions among same-sex couples could be left to the government, providing the full range of civil liberties citizens in a democracy expect. The fact that marriage is governed by the state, defies its purpose intended by God for heterosexuals and prevents civil liberties from being granted to same-sex couples.
Granted, 17th century Puritans viewed the government as agents of God's authority, but they never could have foreseen how non-Christians would want to use a Christian practice as a political right.
The sanctity of marriage, as defined in Genesis 2, would be best preserved if marriage were left to the authority of the church. Instead, most Bible-believing Christians find themselves defending a religious practice that was never designed to be governed by a secular institution.