Un-Traditional Marriage

By Shell Suber

ringsWords have meaning. But often the meaning changes over time. In the 16th century, when the King James Version was translated, the word “pride” meant what selfish, self-centered, and arrogant mean today. “Pride” has evolved to mean something quite different today. This evolution in no way weakens the significance of the sin of loving one’s self more than God or others, it only means that today we must use as different words to convey what the word “pride” used to mean. No harm. It happens to words all the time. Our language grows and changes – sometimes in peculiar and unforeseen ways.

The word “marriage” used to refer exclusively to a religious ceremony like the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion or the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. But over time Judeo-Christian cultures allowed the word to seep into secular life. Governments were permitted to use the term “marriage” as convenient shorthand in their laws and regulations. And why not? Everyone knew what it meant and there needed to be laws governing property rights and divorce proceedings etc. and “marriage” was as good a term as any. Ditto “husband” and “wife.” What could be the harm borrowing it from our spiritual life for use in our worldly one?

Of course eventually it became accepted that if any man and woman wanted to be “married,” all they had to do was go down to the courthouse, fill out a form (skip the church entirely) and the whole of society would recognize them as “married.” We even began to legally recognize couples that couldn’t be bothered with the courthouse and simply began calling themselves “married.”

Such is the risk when you relinquish authority to define your word to another. Can you imagine ever allowing the state to define or even keep records of who is baptized? What about an official government Communion Licence? Can’t you just see the uproar if your pastor were to say “Now, by the power vested in me by the state of South Carolina, I now pronounce you baptized in the name of God.” Power vested by the state? THE STATE?!?! Forgive me but our Catholic friends have begun wars over lesser blasphemies. Yet that is precisely what is said at the finale of every wedding you have ever attended, right there in the church, right from the mouth of the pastor/priest/preacher/rabbi.

Today, homosexual couples want to further extend use of the term “marriage” to apply in law to their unions even in states that recognize civil unions as the equivalent. Those unhappy with this development are suddenly very protective of the traditional, Biblical definition of “marriage.” Where was their condemnation when this word was taken from our churches and synagogues and placed into our secular laws and regulations? Where was the uproar when the state was endowed with the authority to vest the power in clergy to declare two people married? Or when a form at the courthouse became all that was needed to be called “married?” Today, the word is as much a legal term as it is a religious one. Perhaps more so.

When I first commented about this in a Facebook post some time ago, a friend informed me that most Latin American governments do not recognize church weddings. There the couple is not bound in the eyes of the state until they come to the courthouse to fill out their paperwork. In fact, most couples have two ceremonies – the traditional church service followed by a quick stop by the courthouse on the way to the wedding celebration – just to keep everything in its proper place. Seems our friends in the Really Deep South have managed to keep separate what we regretfully failed to.

I’m afraid those who seek to defend the traditional definition of “marriage” are a century or more too late. We gave away the word a long time ago.

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One Comment to “Un-Traditional Marriage”

  1. Shell, really good thoughts here. You’re right—we passed up the chance to hold the idea of marriage to mean only what the church defines as marriage.

    In most other countries, it isn’t really this way; the civil magistrate must sign off on any marriage license or other government-related document, and ministers/priests/pastors must officiate any ecclesiastically-blessed marriage. If someone wants to claim the blessings and responsibilities of both, they must seek out the services of both officials.

    One of the ways that our American culture is confused by this is that pastors/priests/etc. are uniquely granted the right to act as civil magistrates for the sake of officiating a marriage. This has meant that a marriage conducted by the church is also recognized by the state without further official action (assuming, of course, that the couple sought a proper license and presented it to their officiating pastor). And therefore, by default, marriages officiated by the state are recognized by the church—again, without any further adjudication.

    I think that this arrangement needs to be severed. If it was, then churches would have the right to recognize what marriages they wished (presumably according to their doctrinal standards), but also to refuse to recognize “unholy” unions as legitimate in the eyes of God. This goes for same-sex unions, but it also extends to other illicit relationships; we should be more circumspect about how readily we accept the marriage of the guy who abandoned his wife and eloped with his mistress, for example, just as much as others.

    Again, solid and interesting thoughts.

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