European influence on church forms has been casually accepted for generations without the close examination it deserves. In the United States today, for example, when people argue whether gays should be allowed to “get married” or not, they often find their dialogue foundering on the rocks of cultural and religious misconceptions.
One such misconception is that “marriage” — as practiced in the United States — is primarily a religious practice.
In fact, marriage is in itself a “marriage” of civil law and religious traditions. It can be argued that “marriage” predates American law making it fundamentally religious. Yet the telling point isn’t how “old” an institution is, but who controls its practice. And in America and other Western nations, “marriage” is under the control of the civil government.
Consider how completely marriage is primarily a civil exercise. Let’s look at three possible variations:
- Two people (man and woman) first go to the county courthouse for a license to wed, then go in front of a priest or preacher to repeat a set of vows in front of witnesses;
- Two people (man and woman) go to the county courthouse for a license to wed and exchange vows in front of two witnesses and a Justice of the Peace (i.e. no church);
- Two people (man and woman) skip the county courthouse and license, and instead stand in front of a priest or preacher and repeat a set of vows in front of witnesses.
Now — of the three options, which people are “married”? How about #1 — the ones who have both a civil license and church vows? Yes. How about #2 — the ones who have only a civil license and no church vows? Yes. How about #3 — the ones who have no civil license and only church vows?
The answer to #3 is no. If all a couple has is a wedding in front of their church family consisting of traditional vows but no civil license, then they’re not considered married. Even Christians don’t consider it a “marriage” without a civil license, and Christians do consider it “marriage” if there’s only a civil license and ceremony with no religious ceremony. Civil law trumps religious claims to the contrary.
In Western nations, “marriage” is a legal contract. It’s a contract that primarily oversees the initial commingling of assets between two people as well as assets later generated from within that union (including finances, intellectual properties and children.) Marriage is primarily a civil matter, sanctioned by government via legal licenses issued by and recorded in local courthouses — not sanctioned by churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.
How did the civil government ever get its hands on “marriage” which historically is a spiritual covenant between a man and a woman and God Himself?
Americans and Europeans trace their cultural linage to Judeo-Christian roots. The First Marriage, in Western history, is that marriage which took place between Adam and Eve in the Presence of God when there were no other people on earth. If you read through both the Old Testament and the New, you can’t find any marriage “ceremony” other than this First One.
Even Jesus re-confirmed the ancient ceremony when He observed,”Haven’t you read that the Creator made them male and female in the beginning and that He said, ‘That’s why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one’? So they are no longer two but one. Therefore, don’t let anyone separate what God has joined together.”
And even more astonishing is that nothing in the Bible gives us anything approximating the typical elements of the modern wedding ceremony. Biblically, two people getting married don’t need a civil license, they don’t need witnesses and they don’t need a wedding cake. Not to put too fine a point on it — they don’t need a preacher “uniting them in marriage” because that union comes into existence physically. (Hence, the apostle Paul’s warning to Believers in Corinth to stop having multiple sex partners because every time two people “come together”, they spiritually “become one”.)
The current brouhaha over whether gays can “get married” or not is resolved easily in the minds and hearts of people who start by discerning the differences between civil law, religious (non-biblical) traditions and spiritual reality. What a gay couple is asking for is a civil right to have both the legal contract and the legal title of “marriage” as is currently bestowed by the civil government on a man and a woman.
There’s one last point to be made here. Not only is that spiritual covenant which is established between a man and a woman not “property of the civil government”, it’s not owned by the religious establishment either. Let’s be clear that even after this blog is read, the word “marriage” is still going to be used to mean different things.
So when the State uses the word “marriage”, that “marriage” is under their control; when a church or church leaders use the word “marriage”, that “marriage” is under their control. But when you and your beloved use the word marriage, it’s up to you as to whether you mean civil marriage or religious marriage or the freedom of initiating and entering into your own, spiritual/physical union — that simple but unalterable covenant established between two lovers and the God Who Loves them.
Emil & Shell Swift