Redefining Marriage?

Is the Supreme Court really redefining marriage for the Church? Many of us think the short answer is “no.” Christians in the USA will need to clarify our language (like Christians already do in much of the world). We currently talk generically about “marriage.” So we say, “The Supreme Court has redefined marriage.” I think we need to introduce adjectives into our discussion of “marriage.” We need to distinguish between Christian marriage and legal marriage or civil marriage. Civil marriage in America will end up being whatever combination of men, women and animals that the American government chooses to acknowledge. As citizens of a country, we must acknowledge a legal marriage. We do not have to recognize it as Christian. As citizens, we must also allow all the civil rights of civil marriage to apply to all forms of civil marriage.

I am always better off if I can quote C. S. Lewis, who asked,

“My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.“(from Mere Christianity in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, repr. ed., [HarperCollins, 2009], p. 95).

In Indonesia (the most populous Muslim nation), churches do “Blessing Services” on marriages. The government issues marriage licenses. Couples who wish to have a Christian marriage ask the Church to bless their civil marriage. (In Indonesia, the wedding gown, etc., is used in the blessing service.) In Indonesia, Christian ministers did not legally endorse or officiate the marriage licenses. Rather, they bless Christian marriages.

If we stay in the business of being agents of the American government in officially signing government marriage licenses, then we may well be required to officiate all civil marriages. I might suggest our role is to recognize which civil marriages are Christian marriages and to pray God’s blessing upon those.

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5 thoughts on “Redefining Marriage?

  1. Hi Dr. Richards,

    I think you have very valid points. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but there is now a very different definition of a Christian marriage and a civil marriage, so this makes sense.

    A couple of questions or thoughts. I think you’re suggesting for other laws to change. From my understanding, a Christian blessing on a marriage, thus not actually officiating a wedding, would mean ministers lose the right to legally wed someone, thus losing the responsibility of that same action. Valid and understandable. How do we go about doing that? How is that possible? As a licensed minister, are there parameters one can say, “I accept these, but not those?”

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    1. Alyssa, it is good to hear from you. I do believe that the Church has every right (as C. S. Lewis noted) to decide what does and does not constitute Christian marriage. I also think that Christian ministers should think carefully about being an agent of the American government (by signing and thus legalizing government marriage licenses). In fact, I think in some states, the license is already “legal” when the clerk signs it.

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  2. While I think that I understand this argument, I believe that it is seriously flawed. Let me focus on its major error.

    Marriage is both pre-political and pre-Christian. So the “Christian version” of marriage is not an innovation of the church but a recognition of the true essence of marriage. Everything else is a mere social construct created and imposed by the State.

    This presents a problem with respect to rights and justice. Any law concerning marriage will be more or less just. So we must ask: Is the law for same-sex marriage more just than protecting and preserving natural marriage? As we know, justice is rooted in the concept of giving to others their due. It seeks the common good.

    If same-sex marriage is more just, then Christians should not only tolerate it but promote it as proper social policy. But how can a moral wrong be a true civil right? How can it be just to overturn natural marriage only for any social construct?

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. properly understood the relationship of law and justice. Civil law must always serve justice.

    At the heart of the same-sex marriage debate is our notion of justice, not just as Christians or Americans but as humans. To argue that Christians should tolerate this civil law is to say that Christians should settle for injustice. I think that Dr. King would have parted company with this approach. He sacrificially sought a more just society for all and never counseled Christians to keep their understanding of justice to themselves.

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    1. Kerry, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I generally don’t reply to replies :), but we may actually have more agreement than it appears. I was not endorsing the current change in marriage laws. I certainly wouldn’t consider it more “just.” My point is that the ruling doesn’t change how Christians understand marriage, only that our government’s definition no longer matches the Christian definition. We can no longer talk about “marriage” as if there is an agreed-upon definition. We will need to clarify what we mean. I can no longer say, “I support marriage.” I must now clarify and say, “I support Christian marriage” or biblical marriage, if you prefer that adjective.

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  3. Hey Uncle Randy! First time I’ve seen anyone else mention this line of thought (besides myself). I agree with you completely, yet reluctantly. My first choice would be to get the government out of marriage. Let there be no legal definition of marriage, and parental rights and property rights can be handled on their own. But if that’s not going to happen, then my second choice would be for the church to withdraw its participation in government-controlled marriage and uphold our own definition and standards for marriage.

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