Marriage and the State

Thanks again to Jacob for his comment and question about marriage. Jacob begins by asking this question:

What I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around is how “A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife” has been accepted in Christian circles as meaning a legal union recognized by the state, stamped on paper, with all the benefits that the government can throw at you for being married.

To answer this question it is important to understand our social history in chronological order. It is possible to look at our country and culture today and conclude that the church is seeking validation from the state with regard to marriage. But time and the decreasing impact of the church on our culture has blurred the lines between church and state. In reality the state first drew its understanding of marriage from the church and Scripture. Historically, in the United States marriage has been understood as an institution ordained by God for the good of all people. A reading of the literature concerning the laws of this country will leave you with no other conclusion. From the April 11, 1890, edition of the New York Times, we read this quotation, attributed to the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay: “But however they may be established there is nothing we look for with more certainty than the general principle that Christianity is the law of the land.”

Recent legislative and judicial decisions have denied this formerly accepted understanding, but it is still historically accurate to say that many of our practices and institutions were understood to originate from Christianity. At least initially, many of the civil requirements of this country, including marriage, were intentionally based upon the Bible and a Christian worldview. In this sense, it can be said that the early leaders of the United States perceived that they had an obligation to protect the institution of marriage. Furthermore, they had an obligation to provide a social climate in which marriage, as defined by the Bible, would be the basic building block of society.

For marriage to be successful as an institution it must be seen as originating from God’s authority. When Pharaoh understood that Sarai was Abram’s wife, he called Abram: “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?” (Gen 12:18). Pharaoh honored the institution of marriage. Similarly, marriage was protected as an institution in the nation of Israel. Laws were given by God to protect marriage as he had designed it from the beginning. Following this example, the civil laws of the United States also sought to protect marriage as institution given by God to man. So, our civil laws were not meant to ordain and validate marriage, but rather to protect and serve marriage as a God-ordained institution that is good and essential for society. In this sense, marriage is not established by the state, but by the church. Following the direction of Scripture, the church discerns what are the proper grounds for marriage and,for that matter, divorce. The recent direction of humanistic thinking in our country, however, has been to attack rather than protect marriage. As modern civil law has has increasingly sought to sever itself from its biblical foundations, marriage as an institution has become disassociated from its divine origin.

So, Jacob, from this perspective we can acknowledge that it is appropriate and necessary for the state to honor and protect marriage. It is a good thing for Christians to marry and have that union recognized by the state. This helps to avoid the chaos of the time of the Judges when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” But, while it may appear today that the state is in control of marriage, that is not the case. It is the Church, following the lead of Scripture, that is to be the ultimate authority in sanctioning marriage. Daniel 4, Colossians 1, and Romans 13 make it clear that the state derives its authority from God. Therefore, the wellbeing of the state or commonwealth is tied to its adherence to God’s authority. A state which moves away from the biblical institution of marriage as between one man and one woman does so at its own peril.

Jacob also states in his comment, “but do we need the state to help us to be obedient to God and faithful to our wives (or husbands). While I want to teach my children the sacredness and importance of marriage within Gods design, I won’t give them what scripture does not contain. “

Jacob, we are not meant to function without the state. God has ordained the home, the church and the state to function as spheres of authority. While the state is not the author of marriage and is not fit to design its own alternatives to marriage, it is, in fact, helpful for the state to support and protect marriage, as we have seen historically. For a society to function well, it must have common universal building blocks. As the United States begins to except same gender marriage as normative, the stability of the country will be greatly weakened. This is precisely because marriage, as an institution, has not been protected and honored. Christians will suffer from this instability as well.

The spread of the Gospel–not the passage of legislation–will bring societal structures into proper balance. But for now, the state appears to believe it has the power to redefine marriage in its own image. The resulting society will not be a pleasant environment.

Today, we appear to have many lifestyle options. Heterosexual marriage, heterosexual cohabitation, heterosexual union, civil unions, homosexual marriage and cohabitation, communal living, surrogate parents–these combinations and more dominate the social landscape. Society, the church, and individual marriages would all be better served if the laws of the state recognized biblical authority alone for marriage. This no longer appears to be the case. Thus, Jacob’s concern will be illustrated in the negative.

There will be additional response to Jacob’s and Aric’s comments in the next post. Give this some thought and let me know your thoughts. Think too, about the implications of these things for your children.

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