Time to Finalize the Divorce?

I know, it’s a radical suggestion. And it is fraught with difficult side issues and entanglements which make it a hazardous direction by any account. Children, inheritance, estates, custody, property, visitation rights, medical guardianship, and probably a lot of other matters would have to be accounted for. But maybe it’s time to begin the conversation (one which has in fact already begun in some circles).

The divorce I am thinking of is not one between two people, but between the church and the state as that relationship pertains to the legalization of marriage. Is it time for the church to have nothing further to do with what state-sanctioned marriage proceedings? Neither the state nor the broader culture seem to have little knowledge of and even less concern for what Christian marriage is; and maybe it is time for the church to claim its ground, at least among its own people. This idea is, to be sure, prompted by the news this week that Maryland has become the eighth state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. There is little short of divine intervention that will keep that number from growing rapidly in short order.

On one hand, it is perhaps of little concern to those who do not walk in this way; no one says a person must marry one of the same sex. But on the other, it may well come about soon that anyone authorized by the state to legally sanction any marriage may be required to do so for whatever is declared by the state to be a marriage; and that will have ever more fading resemblances to Christian marriage. Odd, isn’t it? A rapidly increasing number of heterosexual couples eschews marriage for simple, convenient co-habitation, while same-sex couples want increasingly to opt in to what is by all accounts a fading institution. And on the other side of the courthouse, where marriages are legally de-sanctioned via divorce, we have mountainous evidence that the permanence assumed by Christians to be part of the substance of marriage is a sham at best and a rejected idea at worst.

It is enticing to say that Christian churches should have their own ceremonies, independent of the state, whose legal recognition a couple could seek independently if they wish. It is no longer a matter significantly noted by the community that a couple living in the neighborhood is or is not legally married. Such a drastic step should only be taken, however, after a thorough teaching of the ontology of marriage. Yes, that’s a philosophical term. It refers to the belief that marriage is not a nominal matter—something that only exists because we have given a name to it, a name with which we can interchange shapes and meanings. Instead, we believe it to be grounded in God and revealed to us through general as well as special revelation. The latter is plainly given in the earliest portions of the Bible, continuously reaffirmed throughout its unfolding story; the former is witnessed to by the virtual universality of male-female marriage through all manner of cultures, notwithstanding the many differences in roles and expectations. If there is an ontological reality to marriage, we can call something else by the name all we want; it does not make it so.

Perhaps there are good and sufficient reasons for the state to grant legal recognition to unions of same-sex persons. I am not fully convinced, particularly in light of the diminishing respect for marriage among the general population. But there are good reasons for Christians in particular to distinguish these from holy matrimony.

These thoughts are just beginning to gain some traction in my own thinking; I’m not sure where they will end up. What are your thoughts?

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11 thoughts on “Time to Finalize the Divorce?

  1. I for one am for it, and have been for years. This is a fight the church cannot win, and the damage caused by continuing it is quite large. A civil marriage and a religious marriage are seperate in many places. By simply removing that one word from the debate, the flames go out. Laws don’t change hearts, and this battle is casting such a negative light on the church I fear we may not recover as is. It is the number one thing I hear about from the unsaved. Formerly upstanding groups and leaders are labelled by the world as hate groups for their lobbying and fervent cries on this. People boycott fast food chains over it. Enough, time to refocus on changing hearts and offering hope. Same as any other of the big issues, I don’t know of anyone turning from sin because a law was passed. It’s not the way to reach hearts, which is where the change must occur. We are losing credibility as people of faith and love.

  2. I could be wrong, but I believe this is already being done in various cultures, including Mexico. One state ceremony, and one religious ceremony.

    • You’re right; the residue of state churches is largely responsible for our current system, which is not quite like what is done anywhere else. Maybe we should take a clue.

  3. Ken,

    I came to this conclusion about 3 years ago. Why should the church act as agents for the state, when the state wants to build barriers for the church to do its appointed work, to serve as the hands and feet of God. This separation would allow for civil unions which are necessary to endow certain rights and privileges to committed couples (hospital visits, next of kin power, etc), which is necessary and just regardless of the sex of the couple an amoral action). Yet, it allows to church to frees abstain from blessing unions that are outside of God’s definition of marriage ( a moral action) (I might be an Episcopalian, but I haven’t drank the kool aid of the left)

    • I feel the time is right to separate the sacred from the legal. You cannot legalize morality, it has to come from within. Christians must live out their convictions and serve as an example in a secular, pluralistic world while whenever possible, respect the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of our neighbors for the sake of peace. It is time we focus on the role of Christian institutions to train their members to live according to the tenants of our community, give to Cesar what belongs to Ceasar, and to God what belongs to God.Legal is not enough, but only strong families and communities can build character to resist the temptations of today.

      • I would certainly agree with you Dr. Miller, this of course means that the State is engaged in a public morality of some sort. With respect MaryB, the state does legislate morality, it always has and it always will. It simply isn’t interested in ALL of whatever canonically driven morality that some subset of Christiandom has derived. it never has, and it never will. It may have been “closer” by some subset’s definition. But remembering Bonhoeffer’s statements of where he found Christ in the 1930’s in America, that (Black) community would have said there was incredible injustice, including violence, murder, perjury, imprisonment……. in a time that maybe my white family would have said “things were much better then”.

        I found the ArtScroll commentary (very jewish orthodox) on Joshua illuminating once upon a time when it discussed idol worship. The commentator said that it is unimaginable to our age that their forebears participated in this, but it was simply the sin of the Age, just like there is one today.

        It is unimaginable that my EC forebears were members of good standing in the Klu Klux Klan, I can’t imagine what my great grandchildren will think of what we do in this age.

  4. Definitely food for thought. I hadn’t considered this before, I’ve been confused anyway about the difference between a “civil union” which our home state of Illinois approves of and a “marriage.” And I’ve long wondered why anyone, especially non-christians, bothers getting married anymore. “Bothers” is the wrong word, I guess, but people in long-term, cohabitative relationships who still want to get married sort of puzzle me. My brother just got married on Wednesday, on Leap Day, a decision he and his girlfriend seemed to make a little bit casually, mostly because she lost her job and by getting married would be on my brother’s insurance. They love each other but I’m not sure marriage is actually that important to them. My brother even said by getting married on Leap Day, then he’d only have to think about it once every four years. Yikes! is what I say. I have to think about my marriage daily, sometimes hourly. And a cousin of mine, also married in the last year, had a service performed by a friend who obtained a license from the Internet, I believe. There was nothing sacred about the ceremony.

    Good post. Great input from others. Something to think about.

  5. This is a good thing. It should have never been conjoined. But I take a different tack, the church should not be involved in marriage, this is a very late non-canonical custom. You need to dig deeper to understand where this comes from and what it’s implications, in my poor opinion.

    If you want to do marriages fine, but it is not on the list of requirements of a church, even in the creeds to my knowledge.

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