This post was originally published five years ago, on the day of our wedding at the courthouse. Republished here as we think about the overlapping roles of church and state in the institution of marriage (also as an explanation of why we celebrate our anniversary twice this week).
Today is our wedding.
Sort of. Kind of. A little bit.
Let me back up and explain.
In most American church weddings, two things happen.
First, a marriage license is signed, which was issued by the state. This document entitles a couple to the legal and financial privileges that come from being married. The legislature decides who can receive this license, the rights provided by at are guaranteed by the court system, and the person who signs it does so as an agent of the state.
Second, the church declares God’s blessing on the couple and their life together and the community offers their prayers and support to them. The church (or the parent church body) decides who may or may not receive this blessing.
In most American church weddings, these two things happen at the same time. The pastor functions as the representative of both the church and the state. This — as one might imagine — produces some sticky questions. What happens when the state says a marriage is legal, but the church says that it is not a holy relationship? Or vice-versa, what happens when the church says a relationship is holy, but the state does not legally recognize it? By what criteria does the state authorize a person as a member of the clergy? And many many others.
This wasn’t always the case. In the Roman world, the church was not recognized as any sort of authority. Why would the Roman Empire care whether or not a couple received a blessing from an underground, illegal sect? And so, couples would have their relationship recognized by the magistrate, to receive the legal benefits of marriage. And then they would ask their priest to bless that relationship in a separate act.
As the structures of the Roman world began to fall apart, the church took over the legal aspect of marriage. In the Middle Ages, the church was a state-supported institution. The local prince would often make the decision about who the local priest should be, and his salary would come out of the state’s treasury. In this time, a couple would stand outside of the doors of the church where the priest would perform the legal marriage. Then, married already in the eyes of the state, the couple would enter into the church to receive the blessing of God and the prayers of the community.
In much of the industrialized world, there has been a return to this older model. Couples go to the courthouse to get legally married. And then they go to their faith community to ask for a blessing on that marriage. As the rest of the world adopted the example of the American revolution – which rejected the idea of a state-supported church – they have sought to separate the work of the courthouse from the work of the church.
As a pastor, I am not called to government work. There are people who are gifted at it, and for whom I give thanks. But I am not one of them. I don’t want to be in the business of being an agent of the state. In my study of church history, it does not work out well for the church when it starts doing the work of the state.
As a couple, Megan and I think that there is a difference between what is legal and what is holy. And we want to be intentional about those things. And so we are separating them out. We want the benefits of a marriage that is recognized by the government of the United States, and so we are getting a legal marriage. We also want the blessing of God on our marriage, and the prayers of our community, so we are getting a church marriage.
Let me be clear. Most Americans do both the legal and the religious marriage at the same time. Those are good, holy, and legal marriages. I am not disparaging those weddings. I am, however, asking if perhaps it is time to rethink how we as a church and country recognize the relationships of people who chose to spend their life together.
So today is our wedding. Our legal, state recognized wedding. When we fill out forms that ask about our legal status as a couple, this will be our anniversary.
And Sunday is our wedding. Our celebration with our family, friends, and community of faith. Sunday is when we are asking for God’s blessing on our life together. When it is time to celebrate with friends and family, this will be our anniversary.
Also – twice as much cake. 🙂