Does Christian Marriage Depend on the State?

This story got me wondering about all of the grief Christians are displaying over the institution of marriage (some of which I share). It is about the government of Israel not recognizing the marriages of some evangelical Protestants.

Hundreds of Israeli evangelical couples have traveled out of the country in order to get married because the Jewish government does not officially recognize their faith. Church leaders are escalating efforts to change that.

The Council of Evangelical Churches in Israel (CECI), which includes 51 churches and organizations such as Campus Crusade and the Bible Society, formally requested in August 2011 that Israel recognize four denominations on behalf of nearly 5,000 followers. More than a year later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who must approve the request—has yet to respond, says Michael Decker, chief counsel for the Jerusalem Institute of Justice (JIJ).

The reporter goes on to supply a quote from a from Mr. Decker: “”We’re dealing with a basic civil right. . . . It really is degrading for large groups of people that have a religion and want to get married according to their religion.”

From one angle, it is useful to recognize that once the state is the one responsible for legitimizing marriage, some groups may be excluded, such as gays in the U.S. and evangelicals in Israel.

But from another angle the notion of Christian marriage or being married “according to [your] religion” as a basic human right is odd. The first Christians (I’m supposing) didn’t enjoy a state that sanctioned their marriages. And the New Testament (the whole Bible for that matter) is remarkably silent on which institution — state, family, or church — is responsible for allowing access to marriage.

For instance, here’s the best the OPC could do in its proof texts for the Confession of Faith’s chapter on marriage:

a. Gen. 2:24. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. Matt. 19:4–6. And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Rom. 7:3. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Prov. 2:17. … which forsaketh the guide of her youth, and forgetteth the covenant of her God.

b. Gen. 2:18. And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. Eph. 5:28. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 1 Pet. 3:7. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

c. Gen. 1:28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. Gen. 9:1. And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Mal. 2:15. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.

d. 1 Cor. 7:2, 9. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.… But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.

e. Heb. 13:4. Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.

The proof texts go on, but the point is that none of the biblical material supporting a Christian view of marriage say anything about whether the state has a role in recognizing or granting marriages, or that believers should seek the state’s approval of their religious convictions about marriage. That contemporary Christians view biblical teaching on marriage through the lens of politics is a further indication of how Christian political activism skews the reception of Scripture and the practice of Christianity.

By the way, of the major Reformed confessions, the Standards are the only one to devote an entire chapter to marriage.

And yet, Protestants continue to look to the state to baptize their marriages when the early church knew no such blessing or use Christian norms for marriage as leverage for spiritualizing political debates. This does not mean that Christians in the United States should not think about the civil institution of marriage or voice objections to proposed changes in marriage laws. But it does mean that Christian marriage has endured a variety of political and legal conventions. The Bible may teach what form marriage should take but it says practically nothing about the legal and political arrangements.


18 thoughts on “Does Christian Marriage Depend on the State?

  1. The church would be better off without State involvement in marriage or, for that matter, its official seal on the church’s incorporation. But to give them up entails giving up the marriage deduction and the deduction for tithing. Are Christians willing to accept that? I have to to think the work of God, on the whole, would benefit from that change.


  2. Jack,

    No church needs to incorporate. The church is free to operate as a common-law partnership among its members. In certain respects, I think that that’s desirable. Maybe then we’d bee much more circumspect about who we let in.

    And I do think it’s rich that evangelicals in a Jewish state are arguing that they have a basic human right to have government recognition of their marriages, while seeking to deny that same basic right to homosexuals at home.


  3. Article in the Wall Street Journal last week about a growing backlash against the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. They receive a lot of government subsidies and stay in Torah school forever to avoid military service. A lot of them don’t work — they just study the Torah all day long. Kind of sounds like Old Lifers…


  4. Bobby, actually I’m aware there’s no requirement for a church to register with the State. I spent a number of years in such a church. But the vast majority choose to operate under the incorporation laws of the U.S. for no other reasons (at least that I’m aware of) than those having to do with things such as ministerial and charity exemptions and deductions.

    Darryl, did Machen ever take a position on this? Maybe it was too early in the history of income taxes and the ever-evolving regulations and deductions.


  5. For what it’s worth a church is a 501(c)(3) organization by default and does not have to apply for tax-exempt status with the IRS in order to receive tax deductible contributions. Churches also do not need to file the Form 990 that most charitable organizations need to file. Churches are taxed on their unrelated business income, however, just like other charitable organizations.

    State incorporation may be separate issue with separate considerations, however.


  6. I talked to a few theonomists who were all in a twitter over churches who file as a 501(c)(3). But, you know, they were theonomists so I found an excuse to bail on the conversation. Actually, I was afraid I would start rolling my eyes. Anyway, does anyone know why that would be a big deal to them?


  7. Erik, my wife signed us up for a subscription about two years ago… about the time it went into hiatus. Up and running again, we received our first issue today. I’m not sure how to subscribe today. Give the good Dr. H a holler for the answer…

    As for the 501(c)(3), I wasn’t aware it was given by default. But my concern still stands – maybe even more, in that the state automatically confers on the church benefits for its ministers and members which churches readily accept.


  8. From “First Things”:

    The OL and the NTJ
    Friday, March 26, 2010, 4:46 PM
    David Mills
    Something you should know about: the weblog Old Life: Reformed Faith and Practice and the sporadically published quarterly newsletter the Nicotine Theological Journal edited by my friend D. G. (Darryl) Hart and John Muether (subscription information here and archives here). Both the weblog and the NTJ are lightly written but substantial and thoughtful reflections on the life of the seriously Reformed churches and the Reformed engagement with the world. The latter was occasionally quoted by Father Neuhaus in “The Public Square” and recommended by him and Wendell Berry.

    The writing is vigorously Reformed and usually on Reformed subjects, but the newsletter often include articles of more general appeal (I remember a rather moving review of a biography of Pete Maravich). Catholic readers will suffer the occasional annoyance — the issue I was just reading includes the line “Roman Catholicism may not make one a good Christian,” for example — but they will also learn a lot about their conservative Presbyterian brethren, and I think will find that they like them a great deal.


  9. As Bobby says, the irony is quite rich. Still, does this really mean that state sanction of the highest temporal institution is questionable? Maybe. But like DVD told Dr. K.,

    Marriage and family are part of the original creation order, they have been sustained by common grace, and my unbelieving neighbors’ marriage is just as valid in the sight of God and society as mine. Christ’s redemptive work is not the origin of marriage. The church did not establish the bearing of children. Marriage and family are institutions common to believers and unbelievers alike. The church recognizes these institutions, commends them, and gives some general instructions about them, but it does not create them.

    If the church does not establish the institutions of marriage and family then don’t we need someone to do it?


  10. This is a fascinating topic, and I have to share this story (from here): David Zadok, missionary to Israel (OPC or PCA I can’t remember) tells of how he and his wife were not able to marry according to the laws of Israel. So they made some kind of arrangement whereby they were married “remotely”, but legally, in South America (I forget the country). He jokes, “I’d like to save up money so someday I can take my wife to South America so we can see where we were married”!

    (Also you should go here to listen to an argument that Christian pastors should not conduct marriage ceremonies)


  11. MM, One reason to avoid filing a 990 is that, among other things, you are required to disclose compensation information for officers and directors, both from the organization and any related organizations, which can make for interesting reading. The 990 is required to be available to the general public and is easily accessible at, for example.


  12. Keep marriage as an ecclesiastical matter, not a state one.

    Or if Christians insist on doing so, they should also demand the creation mandate of Gen.1:28, and I know of plenty of Christians who choose to completely ignore that particular instruction… (to heck with having or adopting children, there’s too much good stuff on TV!)


  13. Rick P still wants to work with state snipers and also in marriage —“churches and ministers should for the time being continue to PARTNER WITH THE STATE in joining biblical marriages….It does not follow that we should disenfranchise the state in the matter of godly marriages. Churches do well to SERVE THE STATE in joining biblically faithful marriages. It is a blessing for Christians to have a faithful minister REPRESENTING THE STATE in performing weddings. Christians will prefer to have godly pastors ACT ON THE STATE’S BEHALF, By staying engaged in the culture, we can MOST EFFECTIVELY FIGHT.


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