State of Marriage: Legal or Spiritual?

This weekend, I’m going to be participating in a conversation about same-sex marriage, the various views on the subject and our response as a Christian faith community, as well as the implications. This is a subject I’ve been waiting on for years – because it’s a magnificent opportunity to redefine marriage at every level.

I first wrote about the definition of marriage as spiritual vs legal before it was even conceivable that the New Zealand government would move towards this legislation in the next 30 years. It was circa 1996 and reeling from the speedy marriage and divorce of some friends, I questioned the legal and civil process by which the dissolution of the marriage took place, in comparison to the associated impact on children, community and relationships.

The same-sex marriage debate raises those thoughts for me again, because I believe in order to have a reasonable discussion, you need to approach the debate with the right questions. So, I’ll quote from a piece I wrote for Christianity Today (bearing in mind that the last paragraph was edited externally) but here’s the quick summary.

  • Marriage of any kind, is not the domain of the Church alone. Cultures throughout history have formed marriage rituals for the formalization of societal arrangements by which to raise children and manage property.
  • Why should ministers of religion be charged with carrying out civil tasks?
  • Can it be possible for the Church to decline to marry those with opposing beliefs around human sexuality, but not refuse those who decline any spiritual belief at all?
  • Entering into the state of Marriage (legal) does not presume entry into any spiritual state of marriage, a holy union or otherwise. In it’s essence, the marriage licenses we sign are contracts, made with promises but they are not promises of spiritual intent and union.

From Christianity Today: One major point of contention in the New Zealand political landscape came from MP’s representing ministers, priests and pastors fearful that they would be now obligated to perform marriage ceremonies that they were fundamentally opposed to. Or, that the law would ‘pave the way’ for bigamous, incestuous relationships to be formalized or recognized by law.

I have no issue acknowledging that a Christian belief system based on the biblical text alone does not deem same-sex relationships, and therefore, marriage as part of the Christian doctrine. I do have an issue trying to formulate an argument outside of the biblical text to support that case. (Conversely, there’s also significant scientific information to indicate that the very debate regarding homosexuality is maturing, having so much more data available. – Ed.)

We live in a democratic state which must be respected by all members of society, where marriage is a legal status administrated by Government.

On the separation of church and state

I don’t have an issue with priests and ministers not having the power of state to perform weddings, funerals. As marriages must be registered with the appropriate civil authorities, why should a religious leader be contracted to perform the duties of state in what is a civil ceremony?

The reasons for a civil marriage are legal, financial and to do with management of property and children. The state ceremony cannot legislate those values that underpin religious marriage unless we were to make, for example, adultery illegal. If I chose to have a religious or spiritual ceremony, it recognises the commitment of two people to honour, offer fidelity, forgive, be forgiven and endure with each other in front of their community of family & friends. The two have distinctly different purposes and Why not give to Caesar what is Caesar’s?

This is already common practice in many parts of Europe, where civil ceremonies are followed by religious ceremonies.

New Zealand Christians in debate

Many would answer this with the line that has often been mentioned in the media in recent weeks: that marriage was defined by the Church, therefore remains the domain of the Church.

Well, the first question is – which Church?

The Jewish legacy from which the Judeo-Christian movement was birthed? The Catholic or Protestant traditions? And what do you do with the marriage traditions that were forming in majority world cultures in Hindu and Muslim communities concurrently with Christianity? Or multiple other cultures that have formal ceremonies to recognise the mating of and commitment of men and women to each other?

Is Christian marriage the only acceptable form of marriage? To deny marriage by definition to same-sex couples is also, according to this ongoing Christian debate, to deny marriage to atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists.

Just a few short years ago, the Church protested against the passing of Civil Unions into law, which allowed for same-sex couples to formalise their relationships under the same provisions of law as marriage. In the last few weeks, the Church has defended the Civil Union law as being satisfactory.

The Church globally, wrestles and protests against change – whether that change is for good or evil, most of which we can only truly see with hindsight. The Church is the biggest proponent of a “better the Devil you know” philosophy of social engineering and economics.

But we have to let go of the belief that the legal marriage is somehow the domain of the Church. The spiritual state of marriage however, is ours and poorly tended.

Perhaps if the civil and spiritual ceremonies were separate, the role of each more defined, the meaning and gravity of those promises made with the values of love, fidelity, faithfulness, friendship and forgiveness would come into a fresh and unique importance.

A New Definition of Marriage
Give me something new, any or all of the following list:

Definition, paradigm, image, metaphor, ceremony, understanding, legal benefit, incentive or resonance..

We, the people, desperately need a new ‘something’ to navigate the waters of human intimacy. So maybe, this is the opportunity to redefine what ties us together and what the fabric of marriage truly is. Is it a contract or is the the intangible union of two people formed by loyalty, forgiveness, gracefulness, love and friendship? I suspect the latter.

I like to imagine outrageous (now) paradigms where by marriage licenses are issued only like a drivers’ license; restricted for five years without any impact on marital properties whereby you can resolve your legal relationship or choose to finalize it. Why not include a Code of Conduct, contract of behaviour that predetermines the course you take if one partner finds duress with the other, an agreement of process rather than just a prenuptial agreement.

Why not drastically reimagine the promises we make and what we consider to be permissible intimacy; admitting that the Church has well and truly demonstrated we are as capable and as inept are managing this function of society as any part of society?

3 Comments

  • Tim Bulkeley says:

    It’s a funny old world. we all applaud the slogan “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, but we can’t take marriage for life. Something does not compute. I think it’s the way we have got the cart before the horse and think marriage is about “being in love” rather than about making love (not in the euphemistic sense) but generating and maintaining love over a long haul.

    • Tash McGill says:

      Yes Tim, I agree. I’m going to post a separate piece regarding this very idea as it pertains to those of Christian faith. This piece is strictly pertaining to the legal constructs around marriage administered by the State. Marriage administered by the Church is a different matter. Thanks for engaging!

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