Monday, August 24, 2009

AAW - Civil Ceremony vs. Religious Ceremony

Marriage issues have dominated the last several questions, which is good...there are lots of things to think about as we contemplate the difference Christ makes in our view of marriage. This week's question is very interesting: If a couple is married in a civil ceremony, do they still have a covenant marriage in the eyes of God?

There are two issues to consider here. The first has to do with God's presence. Several websites mockingly assert that if the ceremony does not happen in a distinctively religious environment, God isn't present, or doesn't see it. The truth is that all of life occurs coram deo: before the face of God. This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one's entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God. So, the idea that “my wedding didn’t happen in a church, God must not recognize it” misunderstands the nature of God and falls victim to a false sacred / secular dichotomy. There is a sacred / secular division, but not because something is not done in “God’s presence.” Everything is done in God’s presence. The question is whether what is done in his presence honors him or dishonors him. So, Can a marriage before a justice of peace honor God? Yes…but that has to do with what defines a marriage…

One component of defining a marriage is the legal / civil aspect…let’s look at:
Mt 19:3-6

3Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
4"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' 5and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

“Is it lawful?” – this question from the Pharisees about divorce is one that is both a legal and religious question…remember, the Law of Moses was the governing authority for Israel. In Israel the legal and relgious authority was blended. But, the fact that the legal and religious authority are blended in Israel is not a rejection of their co-existence. Think about water...chemically it is H2O…the fact that Hydrogen and Oxygen are together in water does not mean that one of them ceases to exist. In the case of marriage there is a legal authority and a religious authority…

Rom 13:1-2, 5 tells us that God recognized Rome as an instrument; an authority that he placed in power.
1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

God recognizes the role and authority of human government…indeed he instituted it. So, a wedding before a Justice of the Peace takes place within the confines of an institution given to humanity by God…and it is certainly under the gaze of God (coram deo)...

There is not, however, solely a legal basis for marriage...

There are some marriages that may be legal, but are not considered a biblical / God-honoring marriage...or a covenant marriage. For example, gay marriage may be legal…but it fails the second test…what I am calling the Spiritual Component of marriage. We see this in Eph 5…By "spiritual component" I mean at least three things:

1. God-honoring commitment is made (to selfless, monogamous relationship; rejection of polyamorous marriages – entered into with intention of multiple partners.)
Polyamory, reports Newsweek, is having a "coming-out-party." Polyamory is the current "term of art" applied to "families" or "clusters" comprised of multiple sexual partners. As Newsweek explains, this is not exactly polygamy, because marriage is not the issue. Advocates of polyamory argue that their lifestyle is not "open marriage." Indeed, they define their movement in terms of the moral principle of "ethical nonmonogamy," defined as "engaging in loving, intimate relationships with more than one person -- based upon the knowledge and consent of everyone involved."
On Dr. Al Mohler's blog, he said of polyamorous marriages: "The ultimate sign of our moral confusion becomes evident when virtually no one appears ready to condemn polyamory as immoral. The only arguments mustered against this new movement focus on matters of practicality." (

The biblical model is one of leaving and cleaving; leaving and being united…literally two becoming one flesh…not just a sexual act…although it is included…but, in every way, there is an exclusivity intended...a living for the benefit of the one’s spouse.

2. Commitment made between a man and woman (i.e. consistent with biblical model)
Homosexual marriage is an oxymoron (like boneless ribs)…marriage can only be between a man and a woman. I am not here debating the merits / demerits of homosexuality, whether there is a genetic determinate for homosexuality, etc. Rather, I am simply stating that homosexual behavior (like all other sexual sin...pornography, adultery, etc) is sinful - according to the Bible - and the civil uniting of two males or females can never properly be called a marriage.

3. Marriage is picture of Christ and Church (people may not recognize this, but it is true nevertheless)… Every marriage is intended to be a picture of Christ and the Church. I cannot improve on Piper here:

"Now why is the coming together of a man and woman to form one flesh in marriage a mystery? Paul's answer in verse 32 is this: the marriage union is a mystery because its deepest meaning has been partially concealed, but is now being openly revealed by the apostle, namely, that marriage is an image of Christ and the church. Verse 32: "I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."
So marriage is like a metaphor or an image or a picture or parable that stands for something more than a man and a woman becoming one flesh. It stands for the relationship between Christ and the church. That's the deepest meaning of marriage. It's meant to be a living drama of how Christ and the church relate to each other." (
This spiritual component exists whether we know it or not…so, here is my conclusion…
A marriage can be legal, but not biblical / God-honoring…
A marriage cannot be biblical / God-honoring without being legal…

So, a monogamous marriage commitment between a man and a woman, before a justice of the peace, is every bit a covenant of marriage as one before a pastor in a church.

NOTE: There were several follow up questions about common law marriages, etc which I have not gone into here...but...suffice it to attempt to escape either the legal or the spiritual composition of marriage and honor God!

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