I was privileged last week to officiate my younger son’s marriage. It was a beautiful event held in a chapel at the Christian university from which he had just graduated. It was not a church wedding, per se. I did use a (modified) version of the Anglican marriage order. My son’s pastor delivered the charge. We sang hymns to the soaring chords provided by a pipe organ. My son invited his church, and, remarkably, many drove four hours to get there. But it wasn’t really a church wedding—not because it wasn’t in a church building, but because it was not officiated by a duly-appointed representative of his local church and because the majority of his church was not in attendance.
For some, this is problematic: Marriage is a function of the Church, they say; some even regard it as a “sacrament.” As a covenant made before God, these argue further, it must be made in the company of the people of God, who function as the primary witnesses and monitors of the faithfulness pledged during the wedding. In fact, even our deteriorating culture continues to privilege the role of ordained clergy as representatives of the State to officiate weddings.
A few observations, however, are in order:
- There is no scriptural evidence forthcoming that marriage is an ecclesiastical function. There is no biblical command to be married in or by a church. There is not even a narrative account of a church wedding in the Bible. Marriage is of course regulated in Scripture, is used as an analogy of Christ with his people, and is held in extremely high regard, but is never presented in the Christian Scriptures as a function of the church.
- Historically, the impetus for viewing marriage as an ecclesiastical function derives significantly from the 1563 declaration of the Council of Trent that marriage was a sacrament to be administered only by the Church. This drove Christians to churches to receive “legitimate” marriages—and the magisterial nature of the early Reformation offered little impulse to contest the practice.
- That marriage is a covenant I concede. That it is a covenant made before God I also concede (indeed, everything that happens in the universe is coram deo). It is right and proper, further, to draw solemn attention to the fact that marriage covenants are made before God and even deliberately to invoke God and the gathered church as formal witnesses to a marriage. But this does not mean that marriages which are certified by civic officials or which fail to acknowledge God are thereby invalid or less valid.
- This is because marriage is fundamentally a function of the civil sphere. Within the two governments of God, the civil sphere has as its principle pillars (1) marriage/family and (2) human government. These two institutions are ordained by God, regulated by God, and policed by God, but their administration is not properly carried out by the Christian Church (unless, of course, you’re a Christian Nationalist or a Theonomist, but that’s a separate blog post). My son was not married, legally, until a “person authorized by law to solemnize marriage in Mercer County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” signed his marriage license.
- Furthermore, pastors assume some risk when they accept from the State the agency to certify marriages. And that is because what the State grants, it can also regulate. The risk is minimal for pastors/churches that restrict their services to church members; the risk increases exponentially when pastors publicly offer their services in the performance of marriages or when churches publicly rent out their facilities for marriage. It is only a matter of time before such pastors/churches will be compelled, under threat of litigation, to participate in marriages that cannot be biblically endorsed.
I’m most definitely not opposed to church weddings. Churches are wonderful venues for marriage that draw explicit attention to God, the solemnity of the occasion, and the need for Christian accountability in carrying out the sacred vows exchanged. But at the end of the day, marriage is a civil covenant to be entered by all image-bearers, and without which all of society is jeopardized.
Incidentally, Christians in many countries of the world have two wedding ceremonies—one before the church and officiated by a minister; the second before a magistrate who renders the union legal.