dissolution of marriage: a case for a church-state separation

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Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

dissolution of marriage: a case for a church-state separation

yesterday on his blog, tony jones made a case for clergy stepping back in their roles as state-sanctioned marriage officiants. you can certainly read his thoughts about it here (and he goes in many other thoughtful directions that i’m not necessarily pursuing in this post), but i thought i would add a few thoughts to the subject. whereas i don’t want to simply retread his points, i do want to underscore the thought and offer a bit more perspective.

in essence, clergy are the legal binding signature required for the state to recognize a marriage, thus granting special tax status and other distinctive legal considerations. ultimately, that means that clergy work as an agent of the state. they are explicitly partner to a state-sanctioned role and office. the problem as jones argues—and i would concur—is that throughout christian tradition, those in the role of priest or clergy were generally regarded as the ones who were oppositional (or at least suspicious) of the government powers that be. to further the argument, many argue (and make a strong, reasonable argument) that one of jesus’ primary missions was to offer/model a way of living that freed people from the oppression of government systems (particularly, at that time, the roman government).

several years ago, i began to rethink the role of clergy in the context of legal marriage contracts. in a teaching session with my theology-crush, tony campolo, he presented a new way of viewing the gay marriage debate. in essence, he suggested that the church should get out of the business of marriage as defined by legal contracts. whereas, he argued, the state—in the context of tax issues and other legal, binding matters—should recognize both hetero- and homosexual marriages, the church should solely be concerned with the sacred aspect of marriages. for him, the church should have no bearing whatsoever on any matters regarding government recognition of marriages. whether or not the church should perform and/or recognize gay marriage is strictly a matter of church choice—not of government acceptance or rejection. if, indeed, marriage is a covenant between the couple and god, the state should have no reason to concern themselves with biblically-defined marriage and neither should the church be concerned if their sacred rituals be recognized by the state.

at that point in my life, that wasn’t a point-of-view i had considered (it’s likely true that i didn’t even have a frame of reference to construct that theology), but found it immensely compelling, thus setting the stage, now, for that shared belief.

much like both tony jones and tony campolo, i now believe that clergy should discontinue their fulfillment as agents of the state in the context of marriage contracts (or any state-sanctioned office).

again, much like campolo, i believe the church should be able to make its own decisions regarding whom it marries and whom it does not. if that includes homosexual couples, so be it and if it does not, so be it. why? because marriage isn’t about tax benefits and legal contracts (though those are some of the realities that are certainly beneficial and a cornerstone of our current societal/governmental landscape). marriage is about a covenant between the couple and god. it’s a sacred and holy partnership and i believe it’s time that the government took less interest in what was happening within the confines of the church and created equal legal rights for all.

ultimately, though, we do live in the reality of an established set of legal standards. so, do clergy refuse to sign marriage contracts or refuse to even perform weddings? i think not—at least for now. doesn’t that negate my entire argument? it does not, simply for the fact that we don’t live inside a bubble of idealism. now, that isn’t to burst the bubble of what-could-be and need for change, but it’s to acknowledge that sometimes, change occurs not only by belligerent opposition (though sometimes it certainly does employ that strategy), but by a movement of changed perceptions and changed minds.

it’s time those who represent the church took a long, hard look at our relationship to our government systems and how we contribute. i’m not advocating a separatist movement or some kind of belligerent opposition, but i am suggesting that we consider the long history of a people following in the way of a man who came to free people from the assured oppression of systems designed to control and rule over others. the government can do many, many helpful things, but ultimately, the church has a unique voice that advocates something greater and something more lasting and hopeful.