If you’ve been anywhere near a television or a computer this week, you’re aware of the eventful week at the US Supreme Court. Through the power of our nation’s legal system, the definition of marriage has come to trial and we await the decision of the court amidst the protests of many advocating their position on how marriage should be defined and/or changed.
All of the back and forth debate has led me to ask some questions about marriage. As a pastor, I’m called on regularly to perform weddings (I have 2 coming up in May). And as a young pastor, I’m still learning the ends and outs of weddings and how to be a pastor to couples as they enter into the marriage covenant.
So rather than pontificating about my theology of marriage, I’d like to ask questions about how marriages are recognized in the church and our greater society. I don’t want to express my beliefs as much as I would rather try to simple punch holes in the current system of how marriage is defined, executed, and lived out in both church and society.
Is marriage a legal contract or a theological covenant?
For pastors and Christians, this is probably a no brainer — it’s both! But slow down a bit, is it really? When couples come to a church for a wedding, they seek counseling and we teach (hopefully) that marriage is about a covenant that transcends even the legal and temporal things of this world.
But when is a couple “officially married” — after the service or when we sign the government-issued license?
And when a couple divorces, where is the divorce handled — in the church or at the courthouse?
All of this then leads us to ask, what is the primary function of a pastor at a wedding — to be a representative of God or an officer of the state?
Do we really believe in a separation of church and state or is that just something we like to say?
It’s commonplace for churches and pastors to say we believe in a separation of church and state. This separation gives room to live into the tension of being both a citizen of a nation and also a people called to be citizens of a kingdom that transcends time and space. We get offended (rightfully) when churches promote partisan political values and endorse candidates. We might even struggle with the placement of the American flag in the sanctuary, noting that worship space is not national space. We enjoy tax-free status largely because we are meant to be separate from government and not part of a nationalized religion.
But when we do weddings, who are we acting on behalf of?
And when we protest or support government definitions of marriage, are we saying we prefer the government to define marriage instead of the Church?
Tony Campolo has written a thoughtful article on the possibility for compromise in this great debate. In the article, Campolo wonders if we could remove government altogether from the definition of marriage. Government’s role, Campolo dreams, would be one where it sets up legally binding civil unions for all people so long as the unions are entered into in good, legal faith. Campolo then says churches could do the work of enacting marriages based on covenantal and church standards. This would allow same-sex couples to be married in a church that recognizes same-sex marriage without being restricted by state laws. It also allows churches who do not condone same-sex marriages to continue to do so without any interference from the government. I’m not sure if this is a good solution but it sounds hopeful.
No matter where we stand on a “definition of marriage” we all should admit to this: Our views reflect an incredibly complicated and often dysfunctional relationship between Church and State.