No, the State Should Not Get Out of the Marriage Business

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Published on: March 13, 2015

From the Times Record Online Edition and The Oklahoman:

Sparked by controversy over same-sex marriages, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would abolish government-issued Oklahoma marriage licenses.

“The point of my legislation is to take the state out of the process and leave marriage in the hands of the clergy,” said state Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, the bill’s House author. “Marriage was historically a religious covenant first and a government-recognized contract second. Under my bill, the state is not allowing or disallowing same-sex marriage. It is simply leaving it up to the clergy.”

Under House Bill 1125, marriage licenses would be replaced by marriage certificates issued by clergy and others authorized to perform marriage ceremonies. The bill passed the House 67-24 and will now go to the Senate for consideration.

This legislative effort in Oklahoma is part of a larger movement to get the government out of the marriage business altogether and make it a purely religious institution. This is a perfectly terrible idea.

Well-meaning Christians are leading this charge. But the problem is that it is not a charge at all but a full-scale retreat.

It represents a retreat from cultural engagement and a complete surrender on a matter of fundamental importance – our nation’s understanding of marriage and family.

Jesus told us that we as his disciples are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Salt in Jesus’ day was used to arrest the spread of decay and corruption, and light still serves as a metaphor for truth. So, the Church is called to arrest the spread of decay in marriage and family policy and shine the light of God’s Word into every hall of every state legislature and into the halls of Congress.

For the Church to pull out of this controversy is to remove the “salt of the earth” from the public debate over marriage and family, and to hide the “light of the world” under a bushel. Jesus taught us to be “in” the world but not “of” the world, but on this scenario, the church would be neither. The Church cannot allow that to happen and be true to its mission.

If the church abandons the effort to conform public policy on marriage to the abiding truths of Scripture, it will have forfeited its seat at the table and given up any right to contribute to the public debate. Policies on marriage and family are going to be forged by legislatures, with us or without us, and our culture cannot afford for us to be absent from that process.

We will have marginalized ourselves, withdrawn from the field of battle, and worse, turned the rest of culture over to the forces of secular fundamentalism. This would be an inexcusable surrender on the part of Christ followers, a mistake of enormous proportions..

And it won’t work. Getting government out of the family business is impossible, for one reason: divorce. Divorce happens, and at that point, no matter how exclusively “religious” a marriage is, the state will get dragged into settling child custody and division of property disputes.

The only alternative would be for everyone – including “secular” legislatures – to allow churches also to settle those matters. That will never happen, for the simple reason that a “divorced” spouse unhappy with the deacon board’s decision or the Catholic Church’s decision will promptly file suit in the nearest court and the court will be compelled to hear the case.

Further, this head-for-the-hills retreat on marriage fails utterly to take into account what the Scripture itself teaches about the proper role of government. According to Romans 13, government is not a secular institution at all, but a distinctly sacred one. This means that, in a profound sense, government itself is a religious institution.

We are told in Romans 13 that every last bit of authority civil government has it has received from God. Three times we are told that every public official is a “servant” of God and a “minister” of God, terms that stress the sacred nature of the office they hold. Civil authorities, whether they recognize it or not, are every bit as much “ministers” of God as the man who stands behind the pulpit on Sunday.

So, by pulling marriage out of the jurisdiction of divinely ordained civil authority, the Church would not be getting government out of marriage, it would be getting God out of marriage.

The prophetic mission of the Church is to be the conscience of civil government, and to use its influence to see that civil government uses the delegated authority it has received from God to implement policies in line with the moral will of God.

The proper role of government, according to 1 Peter 2:14, is not only to “punish those who do evil,” but also “to praise those who do good.” It is thus the job of civil authority, as God’s servant, to praise, honor, defend, support and celebrate the institution of man-woman marriage. And it’s our responsibility as the Church to help God-ordained government do its job.

(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)

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