Civil marriage or Christian marriage

Deborah Coble Wise extends her series of posts inspired by the Wild Goose Festival with a post about Covenant. She muses about the meaning of Covenant and proposes that we find in this ancient and scriptural term a source of authority for our life together as Christians.

In the midst of these musings, she makes an interesting suggestion about church weddings:

Here is one way that the rubber meets the road for me.  If I am going to take Covenant seriously, I think its time that the church stop being an arm of the civil government when it comes to marriage.  I am all for blessing marriages in an appropriate worship service, but why should the church act as an agent for the civil government?  I, for one, am ready to get out of the wedding business, and get back to the work of building a relationship based on Covenant, the couple and the congregation that they worship with should be entering into this call to love and uphold one another in good times and in bad.  I think we’d have fewer marriages in trouble if we were truly vested and invested in lifting each other up.  But then again, that’s just me.

This is an idea I’ve heard offered before. There is also an appeal to the notion of no longer being sucked into the wedding “industry” that is built on extravagant and wasteful spending in the name of “your special day.” It has become an orgy of self-centeredness and spending that flies directly in the face of Christian teaching.

But the quote in Deborah’s post struck me not for those reasons but because of the reading I was doing last night. I was reading a letter by Ignatius of Antioch to Polycarp in which Ignatius gave some advice about weddings.

Be wary of the devices of sinful men; go further, and preach publicly against them. Tell my sisters to love the Lord, and to content themselves physically and spiritually with their own husbands. Similarly, charge my brothers in the name of Jesus Christ to love their wives as the Lord loves the Church. If somebody is capable of passing all his days in chastity, in honour of the Lord’s body, let him do so without any boasting; for if he boasts of it, he is lost, and if the news gets beyond the bishop’s ears it is all over with his chastity. When men and women marry, it is desirable to have the bishop’s consent to their union, so that the wedding may be a tribute to the Lord and not to their own carnal desire. The honor of God should be the aim in everything.

What Deborah suggests, it seems, was the standard practice in the pre-Constantinian church. Marriage was a civil matter. It was good for Christians to marry in ways that centered marriage on God rather than sexual desire, but Christian marriage and civil (or cultural) marriage were clearly different things.

One thought on “Civil marriage or Christian marriage

  1. And maybe the state should de-sexualize and de-symbolize domestic partner contracts (formerly known as “marriages”).

    The state has already given up regulating sexual conduct among consenting adults and the legitimacy of children is no longer a significant legal issue. Both sexual conduct – and children having a mother and father – are of tremendous practical import, but society is too far down the road to go back.

    The state cannot, we are told, limit marriage to male-female relationships because that would be favoring a particular religious view. Adding the state’s symbolic blessing to same-sex relationships just adds one more group the the state’s symbolic favor. If the state can’t – or is too blind to – favor one ethical position over another, why give the state’s “blessing” to marriage at all.

    Make it a contract, pure and simple. Contract to live with your girlfriend, boyfriend, grandfather, unemployed daughter, sick neighbor, divorced coworker, whoever. For as long as both consent. The state would make no assumption whatsoever about the sexual or non-sexual nature of the partnership.

    If the state no longer has an interest in marriage as it has been understood for ages, then get the state out of the “marriage” business altogether and leave it solely in the contract business. Leave symbolism and ethical meaning (and “marriage”) to individuals and faith groups however they define it.

    The world’s wisdom on the marriage relationship is limited and distorted. In the pre-Constantinian era, the Romans had their own twisted standards for the marriage relationship. The church expected more of its members.

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