Thursday, June 19, 2008

What Marriage Is: Some Clarifying Theses

When we say X and Y are married, we usually mean that they had a valid civil or religious ceremony performed upon presentation of a state-issued license. That works very well for most ordinary purposes, but upon reflection, it gets more complicated.

A few days ago in California Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, both in their 80's and who had been living together for more than fifty years, secured a license and went though a civil ceremony that gave them the legal status of marriage in that state. I say that in the sense that matters most this couple had been married for a long time. The license and the ceremony meant only that they now had all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of married people recognized by the state of California.

For a full understanding, we need to recognize three meanings of the term "marriage."

A. Marriage in the fundamental sense means a relationship in which the partners have committed themselves to live in love and loyalty to each other for the rest of their lives. Note that Scripture speaks of what God has joined together, not the state.

B. Marriage in the legal sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures required for them to be legally married in a particular state.

C. Marriage in the religious sense means that the partners have met the standards and gone through the procedures recognized by a particular religious community.

Given the disputes going on now all over the country, some clarifying theses may help:

1. People can be married in all three senses.

2. People can be married in sense A. but not in senses B. and C.

3. People can be married in senses B. and C. but not in sense A.

4. People can be married in any set of two but not in the third.

I argue, along with Will Campbell, that churches should explicitly separate A. and C. from B. Ministers of the Gospel should not do the work on the state. Not only does it violate the separation of church and state, it contributes to confusion about what marriage in the religious or fundamental sense means. Marriage does not require the sanction of the state to make it religiously valid. Churches and ministers should make it clear that what they do pertains only to C. If people want to be married legally, let them go the courthouse and take care of it. What we do in C. presupposes A., although we cannot guarantee it, but B. is not strictly a concern. Some people are more truly married in sense (A.) than others who have a legal or a religious certificate or both.

When a minister "marries" a couple in church, what that means, properly understood, is not that the license and the ceremony make them married but that formally and publicly the religious community recognizes what presumably has already been established in their personal relationship.

Hence, with regard to same-sex marriage, the church does not need the permission of the state to recognize a marriage in the fundamental (A.) and religious sense (C.). Churches just need to get out of the business of validating the legal status of marriage. That is the role of the state and not the church, and the church should have nothing to do with it.

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