Monday, March 08, 2021

Anonymous Asks (135)

“Do Christians need a marriage license?”

Kurt Russell is 70. Goldie Hawn is 75. While working on a movie together in 1983, the two actors spontaneously spent the night in a hotel room (details thankfully not disclosed) and have gone on to live under the same roof — by all accounts faithfully — for the last 37 years, producing two children over their years together. Both were previously married, but their current very deliberate non-marriage has outlasted both their original “legitimate” unions combined, has soundly beaten the U.S. average marriage duration by almost 30 years, and seems to have made them both a good deal happier than any previous relationship. Neither Kurt nor Goldie expresses any desire to legalize the successful partnership they currently enjoy.

As a Christian, would you want to publicly critique that? I sure don’t, not with the limited information I have about it.

So then, should Christians object if their fellow believers opt for similar arrangements, provided they turn out to be equally lasting and committed? It’s an interesting question, and the answers are not as obvious as some might think.

The Marriage License and the Bible

It may surprise some believers, but you can look in your Bible from Genesis to Revelation and you will not find either the marriage license or the traditional Western marriage ceremony — in any of its multifarious forms — between its pages. The church did not exist when God gave Eve to Adam. Assuming the original human couple took any vows at all, which seems rather unlikely, the church could not possibly have solemnized their commitment in any way. As for the government, at that early stage in human history, government was, well … Adam.

Moreover, when Adam and Eve’s children began to take wives from those available, it is doubtful the (human) authority for marrying them came from anything higher than personal choice and family input. All the bells and whistles involved in marriage with which we are familiar today came much later, and have as much biblical authority behind them as does the practice of putting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

Further, there are no passages of scripture whatsoever which clearly spell out how believers ought to solemnize their commitments to one another. There are only minimally-informative historical examples (like the wedding feast at Cana which Jesus famously attended, literally saving the day). But in the absence of editorial comment from the Lord or the apostles about their authority, 2,000 year-old Jewish customs cannot possibly be considered binding on modern-day believers, not least because they provide us with no detail at all about how weddings of that day were officiated, and only a few about how they were celebrated.

Marriage and Jurisdiction

If historical precedent and the paucity of scriptural teaching about wedding etiquette are all we had to go on, we might well say no, getting married doesn’t require anything more than a genuine determination before God to stick it out, come what may, and to order our behavior toward one another in marriage in accordance with his word. Why bother with putting our commitments on paper at all?

In fact, marriage licenses didn’t exist in the U.S. before 1923. There is a good argument to be made (and one Christian makes it here) that a marriage license is not only completely unnecessary, but also grants jurisdiction in marriage to a demonstrably amoral, thoroughly unqualified and incompetent third party that has no biblical standing to insert itself into the relationships of believing would-be husbands and wives.

Given these issues, why do so many Christians bother formalizing their commitments in front of the state? Some of our reasons are better than others.

Reasons to be Official

Inertia may be the most common: if everyone around you is doing things a certain way, most people will never question it. That happens in the church as easily as in the world.

Another reason is respect for authority based on passages like Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Because Christians are conditioned by their own scriptures to respect and obey civil authorities, we are often reluctant to question whether the powers-that-be are really operating within their God-given sphere of authority in any specific instance. So, even when the civil magistrate has severely overstepped his bounds, some Christians prefer to defer to his wisdom rather than risk being called rebels. That’s a legitimate concern, but it comes down to the conscience of the individual believer.

A third reason is testimony. Standards of morality in our world tend to shift and change. Much of the time they are almost completely backwards. That said, if a particular living arrangement causes significant numbers of unbelievers to opine that you are “living in sin”, you might want to reconsider the wisdom of your choices. These days, few secular observers will think negatively of a couple living together so long as they continue to show commitment to one another, but significant numbers will still balk at that couple parting ways, especially once they have children together. Despite the general permissiveness of our culture, couples who do not formalize their unions simply because they haven’t gotten around to it are still thought to be unserious. The breakup of such a pairing may not be overtly criticized, but even the unsaved would hardly look to believers who conduct themselves that way for counsel, or hold them up as examples to be emulated.

Needing a License

But as for the government itself, who cares? The law cannot seem to make up its mind. It can’t even explain why it “marries” men to men and and women to women, let alone tell us where it gets its authority to do so. It is happy to legislate with respect to marriage and make rulings about division of property after the fact (not least because the divorce industry is a $50 billion dollar cash cow annually for the corrupt and inconsistent court system), but at the same time, Canadian law blithely declares couples officially “married” after only three years of living together under the same roof, and only one year where a child is involved.

So do Christians need a marriage license to do something people have been doing for thousands of years without the help of the state? Not at all. A state or province cannot make me officially married or unmarried before God. Nevertheless, some choices are still considered more commendable than others in our society, and Christians who care about their testimony to the world around them are unwise to deliberately ruffle the feathers of their unsaved neighbors unnecessarily.

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