Should Pastors Separate the Christian Wedding Ceremony from the Civil Rite?

Four opinions on the church’s role in weddings.

Thus, Calvin set a pattern linking religious and civil marriage that persists in America today. Perhaps the time has come, however, for pastors to rethink this position. Some leaders, including D. A. Carson, have already declared their preference for more clearly differentiating between civil and religious marriage, citing practices in other nations, particularly France.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker did not surprise observers when he decided on August 4 to overturn Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. But as Albert Mohler and others have noted, Walker handed advocates of homosexuality a clear victory with strongly worded language that dismissed defenders of traditional marriage as irrational. He dispatched with centuries of custom and wisdom, taking it upon himself to redefine marriage and assert, “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage.” He also drove a wedge between religious and civil marriage:

Marriage in the United States has always been a civil matter. Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage. Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.

Religious and civil marriage have historically been closely linked in America, many of whose founders inherited their views from 16th-century Genevan reformer John Calvin. Splitting with fellow reformer Martin Luther on the issue, Calvin required engaged couples in Geneva to register with civil magistrates, according to John Witte Jr., author of From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition. They received from the magistrate a marriage certificate, which they gave to a pastor. He would then announce their pending marriage for three weeks in a row, thereby inviting anyone to offer objections privately. If authorities heard no objections or found them unpersuasive, the couple would be married in the church within six weeks. Thus, Calvin set a pattern linking religious and civil marriage that persists in America today.

Perhaps the time has come, however, for pastors to rethink this position. Some leaders, including D. A. Carson, have already declared their preference for more clearly differentiating between civil and religious marriage, citing practices in other nations, particularly France. I surveyed four experienced pastors for a new feature, TGC Asks: Should pastors separate the Christian wedding ceremony from the civil rite?

Steve Dewitt, senior pastor at Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana:

This is an interesting question for a pastor in Crown Point, Indiana, a city known in years gone by as the place to go to get married at any hour of the night. There was a local judge downtown who would marry anyone anytime. Many came to do so, including Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali. Is marriage simply the signing of a government-sanctioned certificate by a judge? Or is Christian marriage more than that?

Thinking about your question brings to mind the pressure that pastors feel in the midst of the chaos of a wedding. We have to get many things right: leading the wedding ceremony, remembering all the queues, hitting all the protocols, delivering a challenge to the couple, leading in the vows, etc. The pressure of it leads many pastors to prefer a funeral over a wedding (myself included). What makes a wedding “Christian” is a Christian man and a woman covenanting to follow God’s plan and fulfill God’s purpose for marriage.

At the same time, a pastor in the American culture acts as a steward for the state in the civil rite. We are required to make sure the couple signs their wedding certificate making them officially married in the eyes of the government. In my state, the certificates contain nasty warnings for religious leaders who fail to properly fill out, sign, and file the wedding certificate.

This leads to the interesting question: When is a couple actually married? In the eyes of the government marriage happens when a sanctioned official declares it and the signatures of the couple affirm it. In the eyes of God, I believe, it happens when the couple, in accordance with God’s created plan for marriage, vow to be husband and wife to one another. What if they forget to sign the certificate or it is lost in the mail? Are they married? In the eyes of God, yes. In the eyes of the government, no.

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