Pastors should stop signing state-issued marriage licenses. They should stop immediately. Individuals and organizations whose agenda is murky at best are hijacking the marriage debate. We have stopped asking the right questions and started reacting to the debate swirling around us.
On the one hand are people who want to radically redefine marriage in the eyes of the state. They are advocating for open and equal access to the benefits given by the state to married individuals. They want tax benefits, inheritance rights and parental privileges that automatically are given to people who marry.
To this group, pastors and churches need to have a simple and clear answer: “Blessings on you. I don’t need to get a benefit from the government that you cannot get. My contracts should not be better than your contracts. Your kids should be as protected as my kids.”
The only way I can with good conscience say this is if I am no longer part of the civil process. No functionary of any religion ought to be able to finalize a marriage contract between individuals and the state. It is an abhorrent intermingling of church and state. Until the state sees this clearly and changes its rules, we should abandon the system voluntarily.
It was convenient for many years for pastors to officiate weddings and then for the state to recognize those marriages. It was easy, but it was a bad idea.
We haven’t learned the lesson
Somehow, we still have not learned the lesson. We did not learn it at the time of Constantine and the huge influx of the unsaved into the church because it was the “state thing to do.” We did not learn it at the time of the Reformation, when the state executed Baptists for teaching baptism was only for those who professed faith in Christ. We did not learn it in the early American colonies, when Baptists were beaten, whipped, exiled, taxed and imprisoned for not accepting the official “state church.”
We have not learned it, and the church has suffered.
On the other hand are individuals who want to take a stand for “biblical marriage.” This group makes me just as uncomfortable. They seem to overlook the chaotic and base descriptions of marriage in the Bible. Is Abraham really a model here? Is David or Solomon? Think of the models—polygamy, kidnapping and forced marriage, concubines and levirate marriage. These groups so often glide over the difficult descriptions and ignore the pain and stain of marriage as we have known it.
I don’t want to be painted by their brush, either. Can we ignore the traditional configurations of marriage, which viewed women as property? Can we overlook the way the church/state collusion used the Bible to denigrate people of different races and keep people from marrying in the cause of racial purity?
We believe Scripture teaches us the laws of God. We believe these laws are not arbitrary but God’s best design for our lives. God teaches us about human relationships. Specifically, God teaches us about marriage. The Bible is filled with the crazy lives of broken people who get it wrong more often than they get it right. Still, through it all, God continues to lift up the ideal created in the Garden.
‘Ephesians 5 marriage’
Ephesians 5:20-33 lifts up the highest ideal of marriage. I never talk about “biblical marriage” but instead talk about “Ephesians 5 marriage.” This passage compares the relationship of a husband and wife to the love Christ has for the church. It begins in mutual submission. It is characterized by love, respect and devotion. It honors God’s intent in creating male and female. It is unabashedly pro-sex. It sets the parameters of covenant marriage. It is sacrificial, loving, lasting and committed.
Our society has been redefining marriage for a long time. There was a time society expected couples to care for each other, but now privacy laws shield medical information from spouses. There was a time when couples had to live together to be married, but now cohabitation is optional. There was a day when getting out of a marriage required a cause, but now “no-fault” divorce has eroded longevity in marriage and, I believe, much happiness.
Somewhere along the way, we parted waters. We have been using the same word but different meanings.
The church needs to shake itself free of old definitions of marriage. We must reject the state’s contract view. We must reject society’s view of a traditional oppressive marriage and instead reassert the high ideal of Scripture. Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
‘Declaratioon of Marriage’
Couples should get married according the tenets of their beliefs and then merely register their relationship with the state. In Texas, this system already exists; it is called “Declaration of Marriage.” Many other states have similar paths. We just need to direct people toward them. In some states, people will need a state official to perform the ceremony. This is a small price to pay for us to regain our footing in regard to the “marriage debate.”
We should not fear the coming changes the state has planned but instead see it as a clear opportunity to lift up an alternative we believe was designed by God.
Kyle Henderson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Athens, Texas. Baptist News Global distributed his column.