Can the American church master the marriage two-step?

DSCN4560In light of this week’s historic Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, it looks like conservative churches in the U.S. may be doing some fancy legal dancing in coming days.  The question remains: Can the American church learn the marriage two-step?

The two-step is simple. Step one is a civil ceremony  followed by step two, a blessing officiated by the faith community. In Côte d’Ivoire, a West African nation, I attended the religious ceremony for one of my students and his bride. When they arrived at the church, they had come straight from the mayor’s office where they had already been married. Now at the church, the pastor led them through a second ceremony, “in the presence of God and these witnesses,” brothers and sisters-in-Christ who added their blessing and approval in a service of holy matrimony.

Such an arrangement seemed odd to me at first since I only knew of one-step weddings. When my wife and I married in 1985, I recall the solemn words intoned by my brother, the presiding minister:

“By the authority invested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the application for the marriage license, the Reverend signed his name as the “officiant.” Practically speaking, he was acting both as an agent of the church and as an agent of the State, two roles wrapped up in a single individual. No prior ceremony at the town hall was necessary. We had merely picked up the paperwork from the town clerk and had the minister sign the forms after the ceremony at church, along with our witnesses.

But I wonder:

Has the one-step wedding joined together church and state in a kind of unholy matrimony?

As long as ministers of the Gospel are accredited by the State to perform wedding ceremonies that include a civil function, they are acting as de facto agents of the government, what one colleague of mine called a “sub-magistrate.” In this arrangement, it follows logically that the State controls the procedure including who qualifies to be married. As of June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that two men or two women have the constitutional right to be joined together in marriage. It is not far-fetched to think that pastors who have in the past performed wedding ceremonies “by the authority invested in my by the State of ______” could be pressured to perform ceremonies for all comers, whether opposite sex or same-sex.

Here’s a better way:

STEP ONE: Conservative pastors must opt out of the current system. Instead, he or she would refer inquirers to the Justice of the Peace (JOP) or his/her equivalent in a given jurisdiction. The marriage license would be issued.

STEP TWO: People of faith who desire to have their marriage blessed in the presence of God and others of their faith community can do so, whether at the church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship. For Christians, this is the service of holy matrimony.

Our logic is clear: We understand holy matrimony to be a rite of the church which is distinct from the civil union (wedding ceremony) performed by the magistrate. As those faithful to the Scriptures, we believe that the blessing of holy matrimony is a life-long covenant sealed before God only by a heterosexual couple, one man and one woman.

What if two men or two women who have gone through a wedding ceremony conducted by the Justice of the Peace desire a religious blessing as well? Such a couple would be free to seek out a faith community that is willing to perform this ecclesiastical rite. More churches in the U.S. now do so than before. However, since the civil and religious aspects of a wedding would have been disentangled, the prospect of a gay couple legally coercing a conservative minister to perform the ceremony would be avoided since – by opting out – no conservative pastor would any longer be accredited by the State to carry out civil marriage functions on its behalf.

The United States is a pluralistic nation. Though once there was a Christian consensus, this is no longer the case. While some Christians consider the Bible authoritative on the question of marriage, in a democratic society, its teachings cannot be imposed upon those of other faiths or no faith. On the other hand, the longstanding tradition of the one-step wedding makes us vulnerable to having the unorthodox marriage views of others imposed upon us. It is high time that we get out of the civil marriage business. It is time that we learn the marriage two-step.

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