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.

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