On Separating Church and State

For all the ways that our country has moved toward separating church and state, one of the remaining points at which the two are bound is marriage.

Churches marry people in the name of the state. They are therefore bound to marry only those whom the state approves to be married.

This, of course, has some ramifications for the question of homosexual marriage (do ministers have to marry gay couples if their states allow it? must they not if their states forbid it?). But its ramifications reach further. For example, it leaves the church without a way to marry illegal immigrants.

Image: Sharron Goodyear / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I had a student whose ministry was in the Latino/a community. This entails ministering among undocumented residents.

So what do you do when a couple starts dating and wants to get married?

The state says they can’t. They don’t have the documents to get a marriage license. Must this couple choose to either not get married and thus remain apart or to give up on their conviction that joining of themselves in every way, including sexually, is to be reserved for marriage?

We have lived so long with pastors saying, “.. and through the power vested in me by the State of _____…” that we don’t even realize how weird that is.

Can you imagine Jesus performing a wedding and saying, “through the power invested in me by Caesar Augustus and his Governor Pontius Pilate…”?

My point is not to say that pastors should definitely marry people in either of the two situations above, my point is that the church should be free to make its decision in the sight of God irrespective of the rites one is allowed to perform in the sight of Uncle Sam.

The church can do one of three things here. It can continue to serve as the state’s emissary and thereby bind itself to marry only within the confines of secular law rather than the conscience of its people.

It can keep doing it, but attempt to raise up a change in state law so that civil ceremonies are for the state’s purposes and church weddings are for God’s purposes. (This is the way it worked in Holland when my grandparents got married: one set of paperwork and vows for the state, the other in the church.)

Or, pastors could just stop marrying people on the state’s behalf. Really. You can do this. Tell the couple that you maintain your religious freedom, in part, by not allowing the state to dictate whom you can and cannot join. The state is free to agree or disagree as it will, and Christian people are free, and encouraged, to join that debate as a state issue. But you, as a pastor, are free to perform a religious wedding ceremony that carries no civil approval or disapproval with it.

We don’t have to wait for the state(s) to separate itself from our work as the people of the church. We can say, “No, thank you” to the state’s offer to allow us to function as its proxy.

We can put asunder what the state has strangely joined.

20 thoughts on “On Separating Church and State”

  1. “through the power invested in me by Caesar Augustus and his Governor Pontius Pilate…”

    Just like he did in the rest of his ministry. ;-) I agree. No need for connecting state and church here.

    1. As an ordained person, with the “right” or “authority” to perform marriages (granted by both the church and state), I agree: the church should not let the state dictate whom it does or does not marry. The double ceremony (one state, one church) as practiced in European countries has a lot to commend it (oddly, often, developed by countries who have a “state” church!).

      But the laws of the state do protect (financially, legally, etc.)those who are typically most vulnerable — namely, women and children — especially in the event that something goes wrong (death, divorce, abuse, etc.). Will the church be there at the end of a marriage gone bad for a stay-at-home mom with no history of employment outside the home and kids to take care of if Dad decides he’s done and out of there? You can play this scenario out in a myriad of ways.

      So, I worry: The church doesn’t have the legal authority to act in such cases. Does it have the moral authority to ensure that justice be done in such situations? Who protects the children?

      1. Good points, MMT, and good pragmatic reasons for people to be married in the eyes of state as well as church.

        Of course, you also bring up another way in which the church has not only boumd itself, but perhaps ceded its responsibilities, to the state. We too much take it for granted that it, rather than we, have the responsibiltiy to look after “widows and orphans” in their distress.

  2. Please say “the power vested in me” instead of “the power invested in me”, if you feel the magic words are necessary at all.

  3. I’m not sure about ministers of religion NOT being allowed to marry people if the law doesn’t provide for such marriage. It raises an interesting point.
    However churches have never been OBLIGED to marry someone just because the law provides for it. A Christian minister can refuse to marry two Hindus for example. Theres no obligation.
    That mightnt be the case for chaplains in military employ for example but certainly is the case for church employed ministers.

  4. Will Campbell has some interesting things to say on this matter in _Brother to a Dragonfly_ (p. 213 from what I can tell on Google Books). I gave my copy away a few years ago and I could only find snippet view available in Google Books, so I cannot offer any quotes. In short, Will retells officiating a wedding where he gets the state-sanctioned stuff (i.e., signing the license and such) out of the way up front and then proceeds to the church’s ceremony. It is a model I would want to follow if ever I officiated a wedding again.

  5. Perhaps a case can be made that the Protestant Reformation precipitated the secularization of marriage by shifting it from being principally a sacrament of the Church and her authority to becoming an ordinance of the State. To the extent marriage falls under the domain of the State the State is invested with the authority to define and / or redefine marriage including who, when and where. But to your point if the Church reclaimed marriage for Christians…and even
    non-Christians? After all weddings provide ideal platforms for picturing the Son’s love for his bride.

  6. This is precisely why I never marry people ‘by the power vested in me by the state’, but instead, marry people ‘in the name of the father, the son, and the holy Spirit’.
    I’m fine signing a marriage license-I can in fact testify that these people got married, but I don’t particularly care whether or not the state affirms a marriage-it’s between two people, God, and their community-the state’s affirmation is just a legal matter.

    1. My pastor did the same exact thing, in fact every religious ceremony I’ve been to has not married people and said those words. I normally hear those words when two people are having a secular marriage.

      The further point is that without the signing of the public documents, you aren’t married in my state. Considering that you can go to the County Recorders office and get married that day, that the county deputizes whoever to be an officiant for the day so you can be married by whoever you want and that all you need to do is find a church (which is a hugely broad category) that will claim you as ordained if you want to do it full-time, it’s as secular as it gets.

      There was nothing more than getting married that showed me just how religious marriage was to contrast to just how secular it can be.

    2. I agree, StL Pastor. Weddings that I perform never use the rubrick “by the power vested in me by the state.” I’m with a moderate/liberal Protestant denomination, but I don’t recall ever using that terminology in 30+ years of ordination and many, many weddings.

      In my county, clergy don’t “witness the signing” of a license, either. The couple signs when they apply for the state license, and like you, I simply attest to the fact that they were married in a religious ceremony.

      I’d have no problem separating the civil and the religious. And I’d have no problem performing a religious ceremony for a couple for whom the state does not issue a license (for example, a gay or lesbian couple). But the state license tells me that, at a minimum, this couple is legally permitted to marry. And frankly, I rest a little easier with that.

  7. I have married, scores of couples over the part 24 years and I have never said that phrase. I have never heard any of my colleges say it. I have only heard it on old TV shows.

  8. Look, marriage derives from the state. It always has. The only reason it’s considered a sacrament is 1) religion and the state were indistinguishable from pre-history up to the Reformation and 2) after the collapse of the Western Empire, The Church was all that was left of the State in Western Europe, and thus, it took on much of its duties. Yes, it was a part of the State; The Church was constitutes out of Roman bureaus that the Christians had taken over plus their congregations.

    People can dispute this all they like if claiming religion has some inherent power makes them happy. That plenty of folks get their sense of self from religion is obvious, and of course no one who does so wants to admit that the source of their identity is inferior to something else, particularly when they claim that source supersedes reality and temporal authority. But it doesn’t, and it never has, and if you’re going to be an honest person you need to admit that to yourself. Even if you don’t say the words, that marriage is meaningless without the paperwork, and outright illegal if the pastor isn’t accredited according to rules stipulated by the State (which in the US are, and have typically been, thankfully lax). They don’t have their State in your religion; you’ve got your religion in their State.

  9. The problem is that we have conflated the sacred with the secular, as marriage is a state-sanctioned property arrangement, as per state law. (If you disagree, remind me who you do the paperwork with when you get divorced.) Religions have stepped in to put some magic/mystery/authority on top of it, of course, and that’s OK until you get confused by it all and think that religious stuff supersedes the secular stuff. It doesn’t, and so confused, anti-gay bigots should simply have separate ceremonies, one secular to get the state benefits and one religious to feel more sacred (at least until the divorce). As taxpayers, gays have as much right to state-sanctioned property arrangements as anybody else. And as citizens they have as much right as anybody else to be miserable in marriage.

  10. It is a great convenience that the state grants authority to various religious folks to perform marriages. I do not see any problems with the 2-fer – marriage within a person’s chosen religion combined with a state-legal union.

    When I got married in Florida a couple decades ago, notary publics were (and maybe still are) allowed to perform marriages. So my fiance and I asked a friend to perform the ceremony. 5 years later, we asked a nice judge to perform the divorce… (Not to worry – papers were not delivered to either party while they were in the hospital, or were any other vile timing methods used…)

    If a church decides to perform marriages that are not recognized by the state, they should be able to. No questions asked – as long as those performing and affected by the ceremony realize that it is not a state-sanctioned event. After all, the church performs many, many ceremonies that the state does not recognize, such as communion, baptism, etc. There is no reason why a church should be limited to performing only those marriages that the state recognizes, just because some are.

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