Kristie and I are married. We have the certificate to prove it. The state says we are married and so I believe it. So does my church. So do my church friends. We even wear wedding rings. We also tell people we are married. We have it all. We made our vows thirteen years ago and we are husband and wife.
I have performed the marriage ceremony for dozens of couples. I know the ropes. I have performed them at churches, chapels, by lakes, in a law office, and even on my back porch (twice!). There are some key ingredients I require. 1) A man and a woman. 2) A witness. 3) Vows with specific promises. 4) A marriage certificate. Once the man and woman are present, numbers 2 and 3 are easy for me to wing. However, I can’t do the certificate. The couple has to. It is an issue of the state.
One time I married a couple and forgot to put my “book” and “page” number on the certificate. Another time, we forgot the certificate all-together and had to sign it later in the week (I think after the honeymoon). Were they married? I timidly told the excited (but very nervous) couple not to worry about it. I explained that it was their commitment to each other between God and men that made them united in marriage in God’s sight. They were free to do what married couples do. They were relieved to say the least.
But was I right? How much say does the state really have in whether a couple is married or not? Conversely, how much say do they have if a couple is divorced?
There is no place in the Bible that speaks about the rules for getting married. Believe me, I have looked. No ceremony instructions. No mention of government regulations. No suggested vows. Nothing about a ring, a church, a white dress, a tux, or even someone to preside over the ceremony. The Bible seems to give much freedom to individuals and cultures to mandate these things as they will.
But what really makes two people married?
Here are some options:
1. Living together in a symbiotic relationship (mutual dependence).
2. Sexual intimacy.
3. Making vows of commitment.
4. The state certificate.
5. Self identification as being married.
6. Pronouncement of an officiant.
7. Having children together.
Even the state has some problems with this. Most places have something called “common law” marriage. It is defined variously, but normally includes co-habitation for an undefined period of time and the couple must identify themselves publicly as being married. No ceremony is necessary. No pastor. And no vows. Again, the two things: 1) live together for an extended period, 2) say to others you are married.
My uncle, who is a Christian, is common law married. Has been for years. Though they have never had a ceremony (and don’t intend to) they live as husband and wife.
I would assume that we as Christians, seeing as how there are no specific biblical instructions here, would hold some things in much higher regard than others. I would say that it has to be between a man and a woman. There needs to be a recognition of the marriage internally. If the couple never has self-recognition of their marital status, that would be problematic. Many cultures would say that the marriage is not finalized until the act of sex. I am not sure about this, but if sex were never present (barring any physical reasons), then there would be problems as well. If they never cohabitate in mutual dependence, this would be somewhat of an issue. But I would say that the vows (often coldly defined as the “contract”) are the most essential. Without these, there would not, in my opinion, be a marriage.
There are two things that are not that important, though necessary for cultural state and church regulations.
First is the pronouncement. At the end of a wedding ceremony, I pronounce the couple to be married. This is what I say (picture me saying it!): “By the POWER vested in me by the state and as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I now pronounce you man and wife.” Exhilarating! I rarely feel such control. I often pause mid-sentence to let the anticipation rise and allow the people dwell on the phrase “the power vested in me.” I like to think my pronouncement has some magical power. In reality, it does not. Were I to forget this, no biggie.
Second is the certificate. I am not suggesting that people start getting married without a certificate from the state, but I would say that it is one of the least important items. Who really cares if the government says you are married? Do they really have that much control? Of course there are all the protections, benefits, and tax issues that go along with this, but some certificate on file downtown does not really make me married.
However, interestingly enough, it is these two things that most of us look to when we are assessing the validity of a marriage. Did the pastor make the pronouncement and did your certificate get filed at the courthouse?
This, I must say is a very shallow view of what marriage is and completely discounts the centrality of the promise the couple makes to each other. I would say everything on the list is higher than the certificate.
You are married if you are living according to your vows. This will include faithfulness, love, commitment to the spouse, mutual care and concern, physical intimacy, recognition of the marriage, and forgiveness. It is living as one. When your spouse hurts, you hurt. When your spouse succeeds, you succeed. When you spouse falls, you are there to pick them up. You are living for each other the same way you live for yourself. If a marriage lacks these things, I don’t care how many certificates and pronouncements you have made, you are not really married.
It is like Christians who believe their status before God—their marriage to Christ—is based on when they walked the isle, got baptized, or joined this or that church. They may even have a certificate to prove it. But in the end, their status in Christ is ultimately based not on something they did, but something they do. Their status in Christ must not be a past tense trust (“I trusted in Christ in 1988!”), but a present day reality that is ongoing (though imperfect).
Being married is not something that you did, it is something that you do.
Having said this, I now bring up the question of divorce. When is a couple divorced?
I know of a couple in a terrible marriage. The woman has sought so desperately to have a marriage that is full of life the way God intended. The husband, on the other hand, has grown bored with the marriage. There is no sexual intimacy, no sharing, no emotional bond, and no relationship present at all. They barely even talk. The vows are being completely ignored by the husband. When they do talk, he is mentally abusive and dismissive of the concerns of the wife. After years of living in such a way, they would be best described as roommates rather than husband and wife. Now the wife is talking about divorce. The man thinks such talk is blasphemous. He is a Christian and will not suffer a divorce. The very mention of it caused the man to look down on his wife’s spirituality and bring it before the pastor of a church. The pastor then counsels the woman on how ungodly it is for her to even mention divorce. He commends the husband for “sticking with it.”
When I think about this situation, I ask myself ,”What is a divorce?” If everything that makes a marriage a marriage is being ignored, are they even married anymore? Haven’t they already gone through an “illegal divorce”? It is “illegal” only because the state does not recognize it. Maybe its a “common-law divorce” (though not recognized that I know of). Either way, isn’t it a divorce in every other way?
The church (and all of us in the church) are often more concerned about some paper downtown at the county clerk’s office than we are about the marriage. We are terrified of a divorce paper, but are very tolerant of “illegal divorces.” Why do we give such authority and credence to the state in these matters? What is so paramount about this piece of paper? Why is it that a pastor could punish the woman who simply wants to make legal what her husband has already done long ago? He divorced her and did not tell the state. It is that simple. And at the same time, the church rewards and protects the man who is responsible for the divorce because he is so “righteous” that he won’t go sign the papers. Nevertheless, he will abuse and neglect his wife, demoting the status of their relationship below that of friendship.
Though I am speaking outside of my areas (perhaps irresponsibly), I am coming to think that the deprivation of what makes two people married is the definition of divorce. I would hope the church would come down harder on the one who is neglecting the marriage than the one who seeks to have the state recognize what has already happened.
What do you think? I truly want to hear your thoughts and shape my understanding here.