Does The State Illegitimately Control The Church?

wedding.jpgIt has recently been argued to me that, in the various states, because the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act(s), the Uniform Child Custody Justice Enforcement Act(s), and because most congregations (and denominations) have formed non-profit corporations (in the USA congregations usually become 501(c)3 non-profit corporations for tax purposes) visible, institutional churches are in these compromised by an unholy alliance with and/or submission to the state. I’m familiar with the latter claim, that by gaining status as a corporation a church makes itself a “creature of the state.” I’ve also seen this claim disputed. It would be useful to have some thoughtful responses from both sides on this. I’m not familiar, however, with the argument that by submitting to the various state versions of the UCCJEAs and UMADAs that ministers and churches have compromised their integrity and independence from the state. In this connection it has been argued to me that ministers should not acting as agents of the state in conducting weddings. If I understand the argument it seems that at least one other implication is that state-sanctioned weddings are also illegitimate for Christians. These are not rhetorical questions. The argument claims that these acts have changed significantly in recent years thus making them problematic for believers. I’m not a lawyer and don’t play one on the web. Are you familiar with such claims? Are these claims legitimate or are they part of some radical separatist (conspiracy-theorist) movement? Again, it would be helpful to have thoughtful input to help us sort through the issues.


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  1. I don’t see it as a problem YET. However, I think it is all but certain that, sooner than many people expect, the states will require churches &/or ministers to conduct same-sex “marriages” or forfeit the privilege of acting for the government in establishing marital relationships.

  2. It is not an illegitimate function of government to protect the independence of religion, not to establish within the civil structure certain practices that may seem religious such as praying in legislative session, authorizing ministers to conduct weddings and granting tax exemption for institutions to perform their works of charity, including or rather especially functions of education, healthcare, and welfare in which government is now a direct competitor.

    The illegitimate function of government is when it becomes involved directly in providing those charitable services or telling religious organizations how it must or must not provide them. This is an infringement on church/state separation. That being said, it is nothing new. Socialized education, welfare and healthcare has been with us now for nearly a century. It will be very hard to retrace our steps.

    Just as the Reformers worked long and hard to establish church government that is fenced by confessions, the founders of America (who were much indebted to the Reformation) worked long and hard for civil government that is fenced by constitution. Those who now direct their energy into removing the church from its confessional and constitutional relationship with civil society are working against those of us that wish to return to those standards and to the Word of God that undergirds them both.

  3. Marriage is a creation ordinance, not a redemptive sacrament. Because of this the state has jurisdiction over the act of marriage, due to property rights and children. Until recently this has not been a problem for the church in western culture. It however will become an issue because of the encroachment of the state in changing the definition of marriage. This will most likely necessitate a change in church polity concerning marriage, much like was done in the former Soviet Union. The ramifications will be significant.

  4. Coming from an Establishment principle (Scottish Presbyterian) point of view, it makes perfect sense for ministers of the Gospel to be state recognised agents of marriage: this is an area where, until recently, there has been a perfect harmony between the church and the state- the point of the Establishment principle. However, with the recent same-sex marriage legislation in the UK even this relationship has been brought into disharmony.

    So if one is looking at it from the perspective of recent developments, in the UK, there perhaps is an issue. I don’t know about the lay of the land in the US though. I would have thought, however, that for those who were big on spectating the church and the state as institutions, then it would make sense to be opposed to ministers being state agents.

    As to charitable status- or tax exemption- so long as the church isn’t interfered with in spiritual concerns I see no reason why this would be a problem- unless, again, one believed the church to be a private body.

  5. Coming from a Regulative principle (although RSC may deny me that since I’m not EP) point of view, it makes no sense for ministers of the Gospel to be agents of marriage. If anybody (including pastors) wants to administer marriages that the state will recognize, then sure, go through the state’s hoops, and either live by the state’s rules if (when!) they go nuts and redefine marriage, or resign as an officiant of state-recognized marriages.

    “By the power vested in me by the state of …” that’s great as far as it goes, but continuing with “and Christ’s church” is a real pet peeve of mine. Where does the bible empower ministers of the gospel to officiate weddings?

    And if conscience-burdened orthodox ministers all end up turning in their marryin-licenses, so what? People can get validly married by whatever civil bureaucrat the state approves. The church has never had a problem with civil marriages (has any converting couple ever been forced to re-wed in a religious ceremony?)

    • I agree with RR. Jesus is perfectly clear that marriage is a temporary institution that belongs to this passing age and that no one will marry or be given in marriage in the world to come. It’s not part of the church’s ministry.

      I think a careful minister could still solemnize a marriage if he made clear that his authority to do so comes from God through the state (not through the church). For example, he could explain that the state has granted him the power to solemnize a marriage because he is a minister and that the state authorizes ministers to do this to demonstrate to the bride and groom that the vows they are taking are solemn and serious.

      If the state were to attempt to dragoon ministers into the service of gay weddings, then the minister should resign from this civil office. Has anyone else noticed quickly the issue has shifted from the ‘right to marry’ to the ‘right to have a gay wedding’ (see also the wedding photography case)?

      I do think it’s wrong to have a wedding reception without an open bar. The banquet master at the wedding in Cana appealed to the natural law when he said explained to the bridegroom that “EVERYONE serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk FREELY…” That sounds like an open bar to me.

    • Rhett, I love the natural law proof for open bars! I’ll have to use that at the next dry wedding I find myself at…

      “authority to do so comes from God through the state” that’s a very good way to put it. All authority derives ultimately from God, in this case it is mediated through the state.

      RSC, unfortunately I have nothing to add towards your real question, which is about law and politics.

      • The URCNA Church Order says:

        Article 48

        Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to be a lifelong, monogamous covenantal union between one man and one woman. Consistories shall instruct and admonish those under their spiritual care who are considering marriage to marry in the Lord. Christian marriages shall be solemnized with appropriate admonitions, promises, and prayers, under the regulation of the Consistory, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form. Ministers shall not solemnize marriages that conflict with the Word of God.

    • ‘solemnize’ is a funny word, isn’t it? Was it perhaps chosen carefully in recognition that the reality of the marriage is grounded elsewhere, and a Christian minister merely adds the icing of solemnity on top?

    • BUT, maybe more to your point; it helps to frame this as a first amendment/free speech thing if we have it actually written down (and have had for a long time) and can point to it as one of our religious beliefs.

    • I’m not aware of any significant changes to the relevant statutes. Any sort of drastic change, I think, is more likely to come from a judicial reinterpretation of the Equal Protection Clause (or a similar clause in a state constitution) or through reinterpretation of civil rights registration. The argument would be that insofar as the minister is acting as an agent of the state he cannot ‘discrriminate.’

      A church could likely escape the reach of any federal civil rights laws by being careful to avoid engaging ‘commerce.’ A good start would be not charging a fee for any of the services rendered. I’d avoid even charging a fee for church rental. The church or minister could still suggest that the couple make a donation.

    • I wasn’t aware of those statutes. Those do pose a threat, but I still suspect that a church can escape the reach of many of those statutes by not engaging in commerce. In this case, I think the idea of the spirituality of the church and our Constitutional protections align. The Constitution, of course, protects the free exercise of religion. The question is which activities count as an exercise of religion. The more something looks like a straight-forward business transaction the less it looks a religious exercise. Even an outsider can tell that all the hocus pocus that a priest does at a Catholic wedding is ‘religious’ and thus protected. It can’t be regulated. But renting a building to a couple for a weddings seems like a business transaction, especially if the neither the bride nor the groom is affiliated with the church. It’d be the same if a church were having a rummage sale and refused to sell to homosexuals.

      I’m not saying I know the answers, but think that amending bylaws and church practices to emphasize the religious aspect of a church’s activities is a smart move. It would make it easier to define as a religious exercise.

  6. I think the arguments against state sanctioned marriages can be found at the following:

    “Five Reasons Why Christians Should Not Obtain a State Marriage License” by Pastor Matt Trewhella

    …my apologies in advance for the northern white European guy with the long hair (aka second commandment violation)

    • Thanks Jeremy.

      I read the link. A couple of thoughts.

      1. I worry when pastors give legal and medical advice, unless they are also physicians and lawyers. The other guy’s job always looks easier than it really is.

      2. I’m a little skeptical about some of his historical claims but I’ll reserve judgment because I haven’t looked into it yet.

      3. Doesn’t the state have a natural interest in licensing marriage? As part of our license way back when we had to get a blood test. I don’t think those are as widely administered as they were. Doesn’t the state have a natural interest in preventing incest and the like?

  7. I’ve heard of couples getting married without marriage licenses…would you consider them married, even without official state imprimatur?

    • I’ve heard it said that the church can even consider ‘shacked up’ couples as ‘good enough’ in the marriage department, assuming they are committed and monogamous.

      But I consider marriage to be a universal, not church ordinance, controlled by culture, not cult. Look at marriage ceremonies in the bible. Is there any evidence that they were conducted by a religious official? (Were there any licenses involved?)

      And what’s up with ‘common-law’ husband&wifery? I don’t know how that works, but isn’t that a state recognition of an unlicensed marriage?

      Is a marriage license required for filing taxes jointly?

  8. Rube, there may not be any biblical evidence that marriage ceremonies were conducted by a religious official, but there is plenty of instruction on the institution. And so is there really any problem with ministers, as you say, formally adding solemnity to the institution? It’s true that marriage is grounded in creation, but I fail to see why that means a minister cannot act on behalf of the state in formalizing a created institution the Bible clearly teaches has a spiritual dimension (blustery and paranoid pontifications about being agents of immoral governments nothwithstanding).

    So may Christians go to city hall to get legitimately hitched? Sure. Is it the best way to enter that arrangement we’re told is an analogy of Christ and his church?

    • And so is there really any problem with ministers, as you say, formally adding solemnity to the institution? It’s true that marriage is grounded in creation, but I fail to see why that means a minister cannot act on behalf of the state

      No more than there is a problem if I were to jump through the hoops to be able to act on behalf of the state in this way. A homily in a wedding is not preaching, the Reformed frown on administering communion at a wedding anyways, I can talk about biblical themes of marriage about as good as anybody else I figure.

      What I object to is essentially the sacramentalization of marriage.

    • Also, this word ‘formally’ is a bit equivocal. An air of ‘formality’ (solemnity) may be added but that doesn’t mean that a pastor-officiated wedding is ‘formally’ (officially) set apart from a non-pastor-officiated wedding.

      Otherwise Christianity would have (the Bible would specify) an ordinance (sacrament) for sacralizing the pre-existing secular marriage of converts.

  9. So, Rube, what is it you’d like to see, Reformed ministers refraining from solemnizing marriages because it gives the impression of sacralizing marriage? Or something else?

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