Thought #3: Rethink, Restructure, Retool
On Friday the Supreme Court voted to impose their definition of marriage on all states – replacing a definition that has stood, by its own admission, ‘for millennia’. As a firm believer in the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, I am concerned with how the changes in the law will impact my ministry, the church I lead and faith-based ministries across the country. In this series of blog posts I’m highlighting some of the significant statements of the judgement in the hope of helping us discern where the critical issues lie.
Today, I want to ask whether the court’s judgement forces us to rethink how churches perform wedding ceremonies. There are clearly two very distinct visions for marriage, as the justices have themselves acknowledged:
“… marriage is a union between two persons of the opposite sex. That history is the beginning of these cases. The respondents say it should be the end as well. To them, it would demean a timeless institution if the concept and lawful status of marriage were extended to two persons of the same sex. Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world. The petitioners acknowledge this history but contend that these cases cannot end there.” [Issue 2 page 4]
“The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time. For example, marriage was once viewed as an arrangement by the couple’s parents based on political, religious, and financial concerns; but by the time of the Nation’s founding it was understood to be a voluntary contract between a man and a woman.” [page 2]
Wibke and I were married on Friday September 24, 1993. Our wedding ceremony was Saturday September 25, 1993. I spent the first night of married life sleeping in a room with two other guys.
Let me explain…
Wibke and I married in the German town of Loerrach – Wibke’s hometown. Loerrach sits on the borders of Switzerland and France; an incredibly beautiful and culturally rich part of the world. In Germany you cannot get married in a church. All marriages are performed in the Standesamt (registry office) with a ‘Standesämter’ (registry clerk) performing a civil ceremony. Wibke and I, like many other German Christians, organized our legal marriage in the registry office for the day before our wedding ceremony in the church.
We had a small number of close family members from both sides present at the registry office. The room was nicely decorated but the ceremony was devoid of prayers, hymns, songs or anything else that would make it feel too Christian.
When the clerk pronounced us husband and wife under German Law our families rejoiced and I breathed a sigh of relief. There had been so many legal hurdles to jump through – Germany is notorious for her overly administrative requirements! After the ceremony we enjoyed a meal together as family and talked of the ‘real deal’ that would take place the next day. I vividly remember two of my uncles giving me the ‘now you are a man with responsibility’ speech.
It was a special occasion and yet to this day Wibke and I count the wedding ceremony of the following day as our official anniversary date.
The wedding ceremony was what many European Christians would expect. The irrelevance of the church in many parts of Europe means that Christians are keen to use rights of passage – births, deaths and weddings – to display the church and present the Gospel. So in our wedding ceremony there was worship, special music, and a message all of which emphasized the covenant Wibke and I were entering into in the presence of God and the congregation. No one was left in any doubt that Christ was to be at the center of our relationship. The message lasted twenty-five minutes which, with translation, became fifty minutes! A loooonnnnnggggg time for a wedding – I wanted to kiss my bride! However, the entire service had a unique, cultural feel. Have you ever been to a wedding conducted by a Scottish pastor from Wales speaking English translated into German through a Canadian interpreter? Didn’t think so …
While there were undoubtedly similarities between the vows we exchanged in church and those in the registry office Wibke and I were both in no doubt which was more meaningful to us: committing ourselves to one another in the presence of God and our family and friends.
There were two ceremonies because there were two realities: the legal and the spiritual. In the German system people of faith exercise these two realities through two different ceremonies:
- The marriage ceremony (legal)
- The wedding ceremony (spiritual)
The church had a role in the latter and the state in the former. In Germany there is a definite distinction between a state registered marriage and a church officiated wedding. Even though we count the church ceremony as our anniversary we are under no illusions that the Standesamt marriage was necessary to show that we fulfilled all the legal requirements for becoming husband and wife. I could tell you about the blessing service in Wales (for the church I served) the following week – with wedding dress, I might add – but that would only confuse the message!
So, two services. Two realities
It’s at this point that I draw your attention to the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Over the last few days Lewis’ words on the topic of marriage have undergone a mini-revival of sorts. You will quickly see why:
“My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.”
Lewis’ sentiment has been sharply criticized for lacking social vision [see Jake Meador, “Why C.S. Lewis Was Wrong on Marriage (and J.R.R. Tolkien Was Right),” Christianity Today, December 2012]. I’m not suggesting we push for two distinct kinds of marriage. No one can doubt, however, that there are clearly two distinct definitions of marriage – one enforced on the States and the other held by the faith community. No scripturally minded pastor can allow the definition enforced on the state to be enforced upon them.
So what do we do?
The faith-based community is currently pondering how States will enforce same-sex marriage legislation. The fact remains that a faith-based community will not lose her tax-exempt status for not performing marriage ceremonies even though we may lose that status for refusing to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies (or allow such services on our premises).
Here’s my question: since two distinct definitions of marriage exist, and since the current practice merges the state and the church definitions in a way that could cause conflict, is the German system a viable model?
Again, there is nothing in the law to say that churches have to perform marriages ceremonies or hold them on their property. What if churches neither performed nor allowed marriage ceremonies on their property but rather performed wedding or matrimony services for those in their congregations who accept the doctrine of marriage, with all its social implications, as laid down by Scripture and commit to living this out in the community of faith? This isn’t violating the law but does uphold the Scriptures.
Yes, this is a change in practice but it is a change that, in view of an increasingly secular younger generation who understand the law change in the context of civil rights, has a number of definite advantages:
- It avoids the legal wrangling with the courts and the IRS that infuriates the younger generation and distracts from the broader mission of the church.
- It uses ‘rights of passage’ as pre-evangelistic tools – something that thriving European churches have done well in post-Christian contexts.
- It raises the bar for what is expected for those committing to marriage in the church through:
- Enjoining the matrimony ceremony to the philosophy of Biblical marriage and its related components (see chapter 2 of “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” by Girgis, Anderson and George for more).
- Affords the opportunity to create community ‘milestones’ where every couple is challenged to commit to the broader framework for marriage and family as part of a larger family of faith.
In an ideal world, of course, some of these principles would be put into practice now. As I wrote yesterday, however, I suspect that where the state and the church intersect we will likely witness a pressure to narrow our faith expressions not broaden and deepen them. We have a choice, live on the edge of constant conflict or rethink, restructure and retool for a greater goal.
As I understand it, one of the fears for the redefinition of marriage is that this is what future generations will come to understand marriage to be. I see what is happening as a culture war and a worldview crisis. Since the faith-based community understands marriage to be much more than mutual love and commitment and since we believe that the only way to change culture is to create a new one, I suspect something radical may need to happen to the church practice of marriage.
Over recent years we’ve witnessed churches rethink, restructure and retool the way we dedicate babies, for example. In many churches baby dedications have moved from being ceremonial presentations before a congregation to a covenantal commitment before family and friends. The former, although meaningful, was not deemed effective at infusing the social and communal components essential to raising a child. If we rethought, restructured and retooled baby dedications, why not marriage?
My first experience of an American wedding differed greatly from anything I had ever experienced. That service, back in 2008, although held in church for Christians, lasted a total of nine minutes. Yes, you read that right: nine minutes! The pastor laughed and said, “That’s not my quickest either. My quickest wedding was seven minutes!”
Some of you reading this blog may well pinpoint gaps in my thinking. For instance, I recognize that this approach pretty much accepts that the church and state will go separate ways on this. You may reject a strategy that gives an inch. I get that. Nonetheless, I hope we can agree that nine-minute marriage ceremonies will not change a culture. I know that most Christian couples are required to do premarital counseling before a church wedding, but how much of that counseling is geared towards the social dimensions of both marriage and family, not to mention championing the social vision of Scripture? Something has to change, surely?
As I wrote in my first blog, “What’s the harm? What’s the lesson?,” we didn’t lose the marriage debate in court but out of it. If it is precisely the social dimensions of marriage and family that we have lost sight of it is imperative that we retool the way we perform marriages to address these issues.
It is time to create a new marriage culture, one marriage at a time.