New Testament Arguments for Marriage Licenses

(Excerpt from upcoming book "In Defense of Christian Marriage" 
Chapter on "What Marriage Is Not")

A more credible argument given by Christians regarding the necessity for legal papers in order to be married concerns their New Testament duty to civil authorities, obliging Christians to obedience as long as civic provisions do not violate explicit commandments of God or faithful and credible deductions from what Scriptures infer.1

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.2

But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.3

Since, according to some Christians, civil society through its governing organs has presumed to extend its jurisdiction to include marital affairs, Christians must comply. Several questions and issues arise from this contention. Is a “couple [only] married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married”? 4 This is the (pre-determined) conclusion expressed by a not atypical perspective in Christian circles. However, even the state does not demand that couples sign legal papers in order to be couples. Licenses only determine that they are legally married; recognized by the state on behalf of society, conferring certain legal protections and financial privileges upon the couple as well state-defined obligations. But is marriage in the eyes of the state the same as marriage in the eyes of God? Are the eyes of God beholden to the dictates of men?

Evidently not! For those, subscribing to this logic, become inconsistent when they repudiate same-sex marriages. That is the couple is not married in the eyes of God when the couple is legally married. Their reasoning breaks down. And if certain couples are not married just because the civic authorities say so, it is just as applicable that certain couples are married even when the civic authorities say not; as was the case in a bygone era, when interracial couples were barred from legal recognition (and even informal coupling). The eyes of God are not so beholden and bound.

What is perceived as true or untrue in the eyes of the state; of the community; of neighbours and family; or even of self; may not correspond with the eyes of God or of objective reality. Does a friend stop being a friend if state and society fail to recognize one’s friendship? Or a cousin? It requires muddleheaded thinking to perceive that natural social phenomena require sociopolitical opinion for their existence. No Presidential executive order or parliamentary vote can arrest the laws of gravity.

It was not that long ago that states and societies failed to recognize committed mixed-racial relationships as marriages.  Did that make those relationships any less marriage because state and society are frequent fools? Was there not a time not so long ago when a woman was deemed a nonperson? One must be willing to differentiate between objective reality and the many legal fictions, intellectual abstractions, and virtual realities that flutter and prevail in any age. To do otherwise, engenders a considerable degree of insanity; if insanity is to be measured by the divergence between objective reality and personal and societal perception of that reality.

Giving civil authorities default jurisdiction over conjugal matters leaves the legal onus on the individual to prove violations to conscience. Existing laws, subversive to Christian understandings and conscience are many, subtle, pervasive and insidious. The lack of hue and cry concerning these violations is largely a function of an ignorance, apathy, cowardice or rejection by modern-day ‘Christians’ of the historical Christian understandings of and practices within marriage.

There exists another Scriptural maxim that is more applicable. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”5 The state must not intrude into areas, reserved as God’s alone. But what exactly belongs to Caesar and what to God? If marriage and family pre-existed the existence of state and civil polities, they must have belonged to God. If marriage and family pre-existed the existence of the church and ecclesiastical authorities, they must have belonged to God directly; and not through some mediating ecclesiastical agency. Neither civic nor ecclesiastic authorities have legitimate claims as gatekeeper or on regulating the purposes, nature, mechanics, dynamics and principles by which a couple operates. It is a private covenant/contract between individual parties and their God.

To paraphrase the aforementioned quote from Luther (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, (1520), Marriage 6.3) concerning the rational absurdity of requiring ecclesiastical sanction of marriage, the same is true of civic permission and license.

Furthermore, since marriage existed from the beginning of the world and is still found among foreigners and those dwelling in locales without any and/or universally recognized civic authorities, it cannot possibly be called a civic institution and the subjectively defined possession of the State. The marriages of the ancients were no less legally valid than are ours, nor are those of foreigners less true marriages than those of citizens.

What if Christians were denied legal sanction and social recognition of their marriages? This scenario is not all that far-fetched; having happened to various other individuals and cultural groups in recent past. Would it be morally proper in the eyes of God, for the betrothed to abide by state regulations and not be joined? Would we not be dusting our Bibles and pointing to “Marriage is honourable in all”6, repudiating and ignoring any authority who deny Scriptures? How would we deal with such passages But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion”7 or If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married”.8 If the state denied legal sanction, Christians would feel conscience bound to obey God’s clear instructions than civic authority. When Christ reiterated the ancient decree, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”9; there was no understanding that one must obtain a ‘by your leave’ from civil authorities.

If legal requirements for marriage would mean nothing, in terms of Christian conscience, in that scenario, why does it mean anything now?

Like circumcision, civil and legal marriage is nothing in the eyes of the Christian God. One may become legally married, for extraneous reasons; just as Paul had Timothy circumcised. However, the civic legality of the union does not define the union unless the state leviathan is one’s god.

Footnotes:

  1. Two points here. Those willing to disobey civil authorities must be willing to accept their punishments. Secondly, intellectual integrity is called for in determining if a civic injunction violates Scriptures. It is very easy to enlist Scriptural interpretation to support personal preferences.
  2. 1 Peter 2:13-14
  3. Acts 4:19
  4. Mary Fairchild, “What is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?” http://christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/a/marriagecovenan.htm
  5. Matthew 22:21
  6. Hebrew 13:5 (AKJV)
  7. 1 Corinthians 7:9
  8. 1 Corinthians 7:36
  9. Matthew 19:5
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